The History of Hourglass
As Dr. Kliewer crouched to inspect the soil on the Smith family parcel, he looked more like a miner than the Dean of Viticulture at UC Davis. He picked up a handful of crushed rock and dry, red-brown dirt. “Hambright,” he muttered. Jeff Smith had no clue what Dr. Kliewer meant, but learned later that finding Hambright was like striking a vein of viticultural gold.
Dr. Kliewer explained the intense, fractured bedrock soil would starve plants of nutrients and water, causing them to focus their energies on survival, thus intensifying the grapes. Jeff’s thoughts drifted to the year his father, Ned, bought the property in 1976 and tried to plant fruit trees on the hillside. They died shortly thereafter. “These soils aren’t good for much, but they are magic for Cabernet. With some luck, this site could become one of the signature Cabernet sites in Napa Valley. Should you plant Cab, here is what I’d do…,” and Dr. Kliewer proceeded to map out the strategy for what would indeed become one of Napa Valley’s most acclaimed vineyard sites.
When Ned Smith purchased the 6-acre parcel 14 years earlier, his goal quickly shifted from fruit trees to his favorite wine, Zinfandel, with the lofty hope of supplying grapes to local wineries in exchange for finished wine. His plan worked well in the following years until misfortune derailed Ned’s plan in the early 1990s. Phylloxera, the hungry root louse that was ravaging Napa Valley, caught up with the Zin vineyard, bringing production to a halt, and in 1990 Jeff’s father succumbed to cancer. After losing her husband, Jeff’s mother, Marge, had no desire to replant the dying vineyard and was ready to sell.
Jeff grappled with how to proceed. The land had potential, and the challenges would be many: farming for world-class grapes, raising the capital to start a wine brand, learning how to make wine—let alone good wine, or even great wine for that matter. But Jeff knew these difficulties would sort themselves out. His real challenge lay in convincing his mother not to sell and that his plan to replant the vineyard and develop a single-vineyard brand was not completely crazy. Except that it was, and his mother knew it. Jeff needed a stamp of approval to convince her, and it would need to come from someone who actually knew what he was talking about.
The Fated Meeting & The Birth of Hourglass
Enter Kelly Maher, Jeff's childhood friend a talented student in the Masters Program of Viticulture at UC Davis, a protégé of Dr. Kliewer. At Jeff’s request, Kelly orchestrated the fateful meeting with Dr. Kliewer. Beyond identifying the soil profile, Dr. Kliewer went on to explain that the valley is shaped much like an hourglass. The Smith’s hillside vineyard lay precisely at the “pinch,” or narrowest point: a bedrock outcropping of the Mayacamas Mountain Range that protrudes out to the middle of the valley thus creating the pinch. That little bedrock toe, with its unique geography, microclimate, Hambright soils, and hillside slope, provided a site unlike any other in Napa. It was in this moment, as the crouching Dr. Kliewer looked up to explain the nuances of the site, that the idea of “Hourglass” took shape, its name flowing effortlessly from its terroir.
In 1992, Jeff followed Dr Kliewer’s prescription and replanted four of the vineyard’s best acres to Cabernet Sauvignon. He then enlisted his family friend—and former rock band cohort—Bob Foley as winemaker for the new venture. Like so many aspiring guitarists, Bob had kept his day job over the years, making wine and garnering countless accolades and rock-star status for such labels as Robert Foley Vineyards, Switchback Ridge, Pride Mountain, School House and Paloma. Bob continues to make all the Hourglass wines and has the deep purple-stained hands to prove it. The calluses, however, are as much from guitar playing as his meticulous cellar work.
Hourglass’s inaugural release came with the 1997 vintage, a seminal Napa vintage by many critics’ standards. The new brand was catapulted to instant renown at a tasting held just before the 2001 Napa Valley Wine Auction. Organized by David Stevens, then wine director of Tra Vigne restaurant, and now the proprietor of 750 Wines, the “cult tasting” featured a flight of 1997 vintage Cabernets that critic Robert Parker, Jr. had scored 100 points: Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, and Bryant Family. Driven by David’s mischievous sense of humor, he threw Hourglass into the lineup as a precocious ringer. To the astonished tasters who had never heard of Hourglass (as none had yet been released), Hourglass held its own alongside the cult giants. The buzz was immediate, as news of the tasting hit the Internet. Within days, a wine that was not even for sale was sold out. Since then, the Hourglass Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has built a steadfast following and affirmed Dr. Kliewer’s intuition.
Needle in a Haystack
After seven successful Hourglass vintages, Jeff and his wife, Carolyn, began looking for another equally expressive site—no easy feat in a small valley with the reputation and demand of Napa. After several years of evaluating vineyards, they abandoned their search in frustration. If it was meant to be, fate would have to intervene.
As it turned out, fate intervened in the guise of a trip to the dump, oddly enough, with Jeff’s friend David Stevens. “Out with the old, in with the new,” Jeff would later quip. A “for sale” sign caught his eye, nearly causing an accident as they passed the vineyard located next to the famed Switchback Ridge and across from Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard. Not a bad zip code! Upon stopping the car, all they saw were piles of rock scattered among the vines, deposited by two majestic “blue-line” streams meandering the property. A truly alluring vineyard, that would eventually bear the name of its unusual terroir: Blueline Vineyard.
Together with their friends, Richard and Maureen Chilton and Michael and Pam Clark, the Smiths purchased the 41-acre property in 2006 and named it after the two streams that are the source of its magical soils. Over thousands of years, these gravel-strewn riverbeds have created the rocky, alluvial character of the soils that underpin the Blueline Vineyard and define its unique place in the world.
Significant replanting of the site was needed. The Hourglass winemaking team and new partners bolstered the existing Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot with new plantings of Petit Verdot and Malbec. Now Hourglass would be able to produce all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties. At present, each of these varieties is being vinified separately to explore all the possibilities of the new vineyard and to let each aspect of the Blueline terroir reveal itself.
The Estate Realized
To fully capture the benefits of being a true estate wine, the Smiths and their partners constructed their own winery at Blueline, building it into the hillside behind the vineyards. Designed by renowned modernist architect T. Olle Lundberg, its sleek lines, sparse design, and symbiotic relationship with the hills above echo the style of the estate’s wines. Jeff would later comment, “Olle immediately understood our aesthetic, driven largely by Carolyn—modern, simple elegance, with a sense of restrained drama.” As Olle noted, “It’s about taking away the clutter to reveal a pure essence. This is how the Smiths and Bob Foley approach making wine, and it is now reflected in the design and function of the winery. I like to think of it as the anti-winery of Napa Valley in its pure simplicity.”
With the christening of the winery at Blueline and its distinct single-varietal wines, Hourglass has entered an exciting new phase of its evolution. A brand synonymous with terroir-driven, modern Napa wines of the highest caliber, its goal is and will always remain the same: To capture the essence of two of Napa Valley’s most expressive vineyard sites in bottled form, and to have the honor of sharing them with you and your families for decades to come.