Bob Almeida graduated from Loyola University in 1972 with a degree in business. After he retired in 2007, he bought a Napa Valley vineyard and started making wine. He recently developed a new wine at his Lagniappe Peak winery (www.lagniappepeakwines.com) called Wolf Pack Cuvee, which will be released in February 2017. Profits from the wine will fund a scholarship at Loyola University. Almeida spoke with Gambit about how he got into the winemaking business and the importance of terroir.
: What got you interested in winemaking?
Almeida: When I was at Loyola, I was an undergraduate so my concept of wine was pineapple wine during Mardi Gras. It took us a while to actually develop an educated palate. At the time, it was mostly French-origin wines.
(My wife and I) took a long trip to Australia (in 1983), which is where we were really bitten by the wine bug. It was sort of what Napa Valley was like in the '60s. ... We bought the place in Napa in 1999, and we moved here in 2007. We figured out a way to plant on an ancient volcanic slope ... and how to grow great grapes. That's where the name Lagniappe Peak came from. We were told by all kinds of growers that it was too difficult. They were right, it was difficult ... but we figured it out.
: How does the local terroir affect your wines?
A: Atlas Peak is the highest peak in Napa Valley, and it's probably the most challenging in terms of farming. We're not anywhere near the top of it. We're about 700 feet above sea level, but we look out through a gap to the greater San Francisco Bay. We get the marine layer in the morning, so most days that's fog, and the sea breeze comes to us in the afternoon. So we have extended hang time — our grapes don't mature as fast as they do down in the valley. That extended hang time gives the grapes a little bit more time to mature and a unique character. Since we are planted on this old volcanic slope, (we're lucky) if we find a place where we have 6 inches of soil ... because its mostly just rock. So our vines are pretty stressed, but stressed vines make very intense fruit. ... It's a struggle to establish their foothold but once they're in, it's terrific. They're low yield but high intensity.
The last four years have been very challenging (with the California drought). We irrigate from a well on our property so our vines have been getting the water that they need. But up and down the valley, there's concern about what the constant reliance on ground water will do to our water tables. We've seen all the changes that have come about from the drought. We grow four varietals: cabernet, merlot, syrah and malbec. (Our) malbec is a very fleshy and delicious, soft wine. With the grapes, those are the first to mature. What we've seen in the drought years is that the yellow jackets have less foraging that they're able to do from wildflowers so they come after our malbec (grapes). In the last couple of years, we've lost a pretty good percentage of our malbec production. It's the whole concept that everything is interconnected and you really see it out there in the vineyard.
: Do you have any advice for aspiring winemakers?
A: This has got to be something that you're passionate about. It's got to be something that you really, really love. Making wine is a challenge. We have a great winemaker and we have a great vineyard manager, but all of the difficult logistical things — the chemistry and the farming — you have to love it or it can't be done. The only reason to get into this business is if you're passionate about the romance of it, you love meeting people. We call it the seasons of love ... and you can see it all here in the vineyards. It's just a magical cycle of life that you go through every year.