A brief history
Our story begins more than sixty years ago when Bob and Sue Brakesman, the owners and operators of Summit Lake, met at Jordan Jr. High school in Palo Alto, California. After graduating from school in 1964, Bob went to the University of California at Berkeley to study mechanical engineering, and Sue went to Foothills Jr. College in Los Altos to study biology.
After an infamous incident with Bob’s fraternity the “Fijis” the entire fraternity was asked to leave campus. Bob and his fraternity brother Tom Anderson took a year off to travel through Europe. Upon return Bob enrolled in San Jose State to finish his engineering degree.
While Bob finished his degree he and Sue lived in a romantic cabin on a horse boarding ranch in the foothills of West San Jose. Bob met their neighbour Peter Mirassou who was the retired CEO of Mirassou Vineyards. Bob had begun experimenting with brewing beer and invited Peter for a taste. Peter suggested Bob try “brewing” wine. That fall one evening Bob liberated some grapes from the surrounding area and following the ancient tradition, they crushed the purloined fruit in open top fermenters (new plastic garbage cans). Their winemaking days had begun.
Post-graduation Bob and Sue took a trip to South America. While spending many hours sipping the luscious wines of small family-run wineries in Peru, Chili and Argentina Bob began to dream of exploring his growing passion for wine and wine making.
On November 12, 1971, Sue returned home from work. Bob was there with birthday champagne for her, and her husband, acting a bit strangely, kept telling her to open her birthday card. Inside the card was the deed to Summit Lake Vineyards! It described 28 acres of land, eight planted in pre-prohibition Zinfandel (their favorite varietal), fruit trees in the orchard, a chicken house, garage, a huge redwood barn, walnut groves, vistas in every direction, and a house built in the 1880’s. Reading the deed, Sue thought Bob had purchased paradise.
On Christmas Eve of that year, they left their old life behind. Having yet to see the ranch, Sue was giddy with anticipation. When they finally entered the gate and drove down the muddy driveway, her heart sank. It was paradise all right, after the fall. The deed had failed to mention that the property had been abandoned for over thirty years and was completely overgrown with manzanita, poison oak, and coyote weed. Only the house had been used, but it too had fallen into a woeful state of disrepair. The house was filthy, freezing cold, and the fireplace barely worked. After placing pots and buckets around to catch the leaks, they went to bed listening to the storm. The next morning there was snow on the windowsill and on the bedroom floor. They dressed and rushed outside into their first white Christmas on Howell Mountain. Sue’s anxieties vanished when she saw how a beautiful white coat of snow had transformed the land. They rolled up their sleeves and went to work-a lot of work!
Their first step was to befriend the local farm advisor, Jim Lider, who quickly became their guru. He helped them define the soil, told them the history of the vineyard, and recommended rootstock. Well into the third month on the ranch, they discovered a pre-world war II tractor hidden in the brush. After several trips to the tractor graveyards in Petaluma, Bob worked his magic and the work became easier. It took a little over two years to clear the land and resurrect the old eight acre Zinfandel vineyard.
After restoring the old Zinfandel vines, Bob and Sue needed to expand and improve the rest of the land. When they needed vines, they both went to work at a nursery in St. Helena that produced bench-grafts (baby grapevines). They worked the 6pm to midnight shift, staying a couple of hours more each night grafting their own vines. They planted them in milk cartons and lined them up behind the house with overhead sprinklers to keep them healthy. On weekends, friends with white-collar jobs would come up to the ranch and help plant the new vines, enticed by the promise of a six-pack of cold beer upon the completion of a row. It took three years to plant thirteen acres of new vines, eleven of Zinfandel and two of Cabernet. During this time, Heather, their first daughter was born. She spent time strapped to Sue’s back or sitting in a big canning pot, playing with the water dribbling from a hose, happy to watch her young parents work.
When the vines needed water, Bob went to work for a company that installed drip irrigation systems. It was the company’s policy to bury leftover pipes and fitting because it was too costly to return them to the warehouse. Soon the leftovers began to come home on the back of their flatbed truck. Within a year their irrigation system was complete. It was then time to let the vineyards mature.
When Bob needed to perfect his winemaking skills, he took a position as cellar foreman at Freemark Abbey, which was considered one of the best of the 13 wineries on the valley floor. Owners Chuck Carpy, Bill Yeager and Frank Wood were legendary. Their winemaker, Jerry Luper, became a friend and mentor to Bob. Freemark developed many innovative techniques, producing one of the first Trockenbeerenauslesen in California (a sweet late harvest wine). Bob was in heaven for the next six years. During the crush of 1975, their son Brian was born.
Before 1985 all harvests were parties. Friends would arrive early and camp in the fields. Bright and early morning everyone would invade the vineyards with assorted trucks, lug boxes, grape knives and first aid kits. The fruit would be delivered to the crush pad behind the house. The men would load the grapes into the stemmer crusher while the women were directed by Sue to prepare the nights feast. Dancing, music and dining would last well into the night. The following morning, those who were able, would bottle the wine from two harvests ago in the basement. Everyone left with a “free” case of wine.
When they outgrew the small cellar under the house, it was time to build a winery. A sight was cleared and leveled and a massive cement pad was poured. Their three children’s handprints can still be found in the Northwest corner. Their youngest, Danny, born in 1979, and their old dog blue, left many additional prints. The walls were constructed and raised with the help of friends and neighbors and their tractors, in the true “barn-raising" style. With the rafters in place, Sue’s cousins Mark and Russell skillfully laid the roof. A couple of coats of paint on the walls and a beautiful mural on the big front doors painted by Sue’s Uncle Ralph completed the job. Bonded winery #5255 was finished in 1985.
Bob’s engineering degree kicked into full throttle when the winery needed equipment. He began working for the Complete Winemaker in St. Helena. Bob was soon traveling to wineries springing up in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, designing and installing their new bottling lines. He also kept a sharp eye on the equipment ready to be replaced. A filler from here, a labeler from there, tanks, barrels, pieces of this and that, lots of stainless steel, and the winery was ready to go.
Summit Lake Vineyards first commercial release, a 1978 Zinfandel, won the coveted double gold medal at the California State Fair. It sold out in just eight days. They had done it!
2021 will mark our 50th year at Summit Lake Vineyards, and we are proud to still be Family Owned and Operated. In addition to our Zinfandel, we are now producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel Port, Petite Sirah,a Red Wine Blend a Rosé and a Sparkling Rosé. All of these wines are named for Bob and Sue’s granddaughters; Emily Kestrel, Clair Riley, Sophia Lynn, Blythe Susan, and grandsons Ben and Shane.