When Casidy Ward and Lynn Hofacket purchased the Hidden Ridge Vineyard (http://www.hiddenridgevineyard.com) property in 1991, they envisioned the former site of a private hunting club as the perfect location for a home in the country — a place that truly would be “away from it all.”
When you meet Hofacket, he comes across as a down-to-earth, practical man, with a sharp sense of humor that’s often directed at local politics or the powers-that-be in the winemaking world. He’s opinionated, but certainly not insane.
But when you pay a visit to his vineyard, and view the slopes he has dared to farm, you might well question his sanity.
Then taste his and Ward’s wines (back on flat ground), and your assessment may change to “crazy genius.”
Hofacket grew up in southwest Oklahoma on his family’s wheat and cattle ranch, where he gained hands-on experience in farming, learning everything from agricultural practices to handling and repairing heavy equipment. He was working in real estate when he met Ward in Oklahoma City. The two married a few years later.
Ward was born in Enid, Okla. She credits her parents, entrepreneurs in the natural gas industry, for instilling the persevering spirit and inquisitive nature that led her to become an entrepreneur as well.
Ward played tennis competitively in high school and the first year of college, and studied Political Science and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. After moving west in 1989, she returned to school, and earned an MBA in International Business and Marketing at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.
When Hofacket and Ward purchased the Hidden Ridge property, they didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to develop such a rural piece of land for residential use. Ultimately, it proved a better home for grapes than for people, and they found that their Cabernet Sauvignon thrived on the otherwise inhospitable mountain slopes at elevations ranging from 900 to 1,700 feet.
In the early 1990s, Hofacket enrolled in viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, and visited every mountain vineyard in Napa and Sonoma counties to which he could gain access. He picked the brains of vineyard managers, engineers and viticulturists.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1996, that the couple made the decision to plant the vineyard. At that point, Hofacket knew that if they went ahead with the project, he would clear the land and install the vineyard himself.
He purchased the heavy equipment — “buying iron,” as it’s called in agriculture — and hired a crew of two men to help. The lessons learned on the farm in Oklahoma during his youth gave him confidence that his investment would not go to waste; he knew how to operate heavy machinery, and how to keep it running. Prices were low at the time, thanks to the Asian market crash of the mid-1990s, which had led to a worldwide surplus of heavy machinery for agriculture.
Thus began six years of what Hofacket refers to as “the ultimate sweat equity project,” working 12 hours a day, six days a week, to carve the terraces, plant the vines and bring in his first harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon.
The challenges proved to be enormous. If it wasn’t navigating the steep slopes in a tractor, then it was in the form of “black goo” — a fungal infestation of grapevines that was plaguing nurseries at the time, making it virtually impossible to find clean rootstock.
Hofacket actually opted to shut down production for a full year until he found a nursery in Winters, Calif., with healthy plant material. The rootstock was then field-grafted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with the first vines planted in 2000.
Ward shared Hofacket’s determination and curiosity to see a venture through to fruition. While Hofacket had been seeking advice on planting mountain vineyards, Ward was calling on some of the most lauded Cabernet winemakers in the region to see if they might someday be interested in buying grapes.
A few were intrigued enough to make the trek up to the site to see the vineyard in person. Marco DiGiulio was one of them. He thought the site was fantastically rare, not to mention the wildest California vineyard he’d seen. He visited in person in 1999 — before any vines had been planted — and continued to stay in touch throughout the vineyard’s development.
When the vines bore fruit, DiGiulio was one of the first in line to purchase grapes. Other top winemakers in the Napa Valley also were interested in purchasing fruit from Hidden Ridge, but they could take only limited amounts in order to keep the Napa Valley designation on their bottles because Hidden Ridge Vineyard is located within the Sonoma County political boundary.
Hofacket and Ward thought they’d try to build the vineyard’s reputation by bottling some of the wine for themselves, and Hidden Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was born, beginning with a small, “experimental” batch in 2001.
Production now is up above the 3,600-case mark — still very low — with Ward and Hofacket keeping all of the fruit for their Hidden Ridge Vineyard label.
Because of its limited production and remote location, there is no Hidden Ridge tasting room. However, Morton’s Steakhouse locations (http://www.mortons.com/locations/) around the country have been serving the Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon by the glass — a great way to sample a special wine from a very unusual location.
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Have you tried the Hidden Ridge Cabernet? How did you like it? The Comments box below awaits.