Grenache Superstars | Interview with the Randy and Brook Hester of Lightning Wines

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Brooke and Randy Hester's career did not start in the Wine Industry. Prior to 2006 they both lived in Houston, Texas. Randy was working in the fine wine sales for a wine retailer while Brooke was working as a Tax Consultant for Arthur Anderson LLP. We were lucky enough to get some time with Brook and Randy of Lighting Wines to learn a little more about where their path started in the wine industry and how they got to making their own brand.

Q1: What initially brought you out to Napa in 2006? Was there an "AHA" moment before moving out here that made you want to work in the wine industry? What did you do before hand?

Brooke Hester (BH): Randy has a Psychology degree but was actually selling wine in the fine wines division of Glazers in Houston. He met many winery owners, reps and winemakers and loved learning and hearing about wine. He was a great taster and eventually realized that he wanted to create and be behind the artistry of the wine. He saw how people purchased wines for events or just every day and how it brought people together; so now, the thing that makes him happiest is knowing his wines are on tables around the country being shared with friends and family. He loves sharing the wines and he can get very geeky about his wine-making but also realizes that in the end, we all just like what we like and want to enjoy a good glass of wine!

Q2: What we saw online that you started your career at Cakebread Cellars, how did working at Cakebread and the other's listed in your bio help you develop/influence your own wine-making style?

Randy Hester (RH): I could literally talk for hours about each and every stop I made. Starting at Cakebread I learned the foundation for high-end wine-making which is top notch cellar work - cleaning, racking, topping, stirring, etc. - all of the hard, crappy stuff, but I was real good at it. With Colgin they took all of that and thrust it into a whole other level. The big lesson that I live by is that everything matters. We did everything right every time. Being the best at something is never a mistake, so it's no surprise that Colgin does what it takes. During my time with Realm I was pretty much flying solo for the first time. I had to pull together all I had seen and done up to that point and make it happen. Blending sessions with Michel Rolland blew me away and definitely shape how I see wine in components to this day. My last day job was working for Andy Erickson, and again I could go on for hours. Andy is so good at what he does, not only in the cellar, but in the vineyard, and just in life in general. Of course I was able to fine tune my wine-making skills to a level that I never thought that I would achieve, but I was also able to work with a guy at the height of his game. He was good at it, and he looked cool doing it.

Q3: What other estates have you worked for?

BH: He started at Cakebread for $12/hour as a cellar intern! Then went on to work at Colgin, Realm and his last job before being self-employed was for Andy Erickson.

Q4: Throughout your wine-making career you have worked along side some very well-known wine-makers and consultants. Do you consider any of them as a mentor? How so? Did they inspire/push you in the direction of making Rhone-Inspired wines?

RH: There are three main winemakers that I can say have inspired me since I have known who they are, and I am fortunate to call them all friends today. They are all three big time Napa Cab consulting winemakers, whose personal brands, completely coincidentally, all happen to be Rhone based, but that part didn't really hit me until I started looking for my own fruit. When we moved to Napa I made a top 50 list of people, wineries, vineyards, etc. that I hoped to work with, and if I was able to work with any one of them then this whole adventure would be totally worth it. Andy Erickson was #1 on that list. I have already talked about Andy, but I still remember the first time he called me by my first name. Helen Keplinger is a total bad ass. She somehow seems to do just about everything there is to do, and do it all well. She's this pretty, smaller lady who's funny, nice, and really hard working. She's not afraid to strap on her boots and get it done, or put that boot where the sun don't shine. Helen actually introduced me to Mike Hirby who hired me at Realm. Mike is a rock star and an artist who happened to land a gig as a winemaker. Like the others, Mike has been making cult wines in Napa for a long time but he is so much more than that. I look up to these folks because they are at the top of the wine-making food chain and yet that's not what defines them. They're talented, sensitive, imaginative creators, who also by chance make pretty good wines.

Q5: From what you said in one of your previous emails you said that you are located in St. Helena but source your fruit from all over. How do you choose which vineyards you source your fruit from? Is it the terroir? Experience with the fruit? Etc. Is this all a part of the vineyard logistics?

BH: When Randy started trying to find fruit in 2010/2011, he purchased 80+ bottles of Grenache to pinpoint the style and vineyards he was most interested in making himself. When he really loved a wine, he would cold call the winery and/or vineyard owner and inquire about available fruit. We had to connect with the right growers - those who could see our vision and where we believed we could end up. Then we had to prove ourselves. Randy definitely wanted to work with certain farmers and areas and worked really hard to make it happen.

When we quit our jobs in Houston in 2006, we cut our income in half to move to Napa so Randy could pursue his dream of learning to make wine. PLUS, cost of living was much more. When we started Lightning in 2011, we were both working full time jobs and working on Lightning at night/weekends. We put all of our savings in the brand but started small so as to be responsible with growth. We have slowly grown over each vintage to the place where we want to be. And now Randy's full time job is Lightning! Very exciting.

Q6: With selecting your sources of fruit, do you have any involvement in the vineyard management?

BH: We believe in letting the experts do what they do best! Randy is a great winemaker and he loves the expertise and knowledge our growers have. He will make many vineyard visits, request thinning, test grape samples and be very involved about the target brix and timing of the pick. For our vineyards in Paso, he would make the round trip drive in a day just to sample the fruit for brix around harvest. But in the end, we work with growers we trust and who truly know their vines.

Q6: As for your wine-making process, did you do anything different between your different Grenache wines, or are they made in the same style/manner? Is there anything you find unique compared to others making Grenache in California?

BH: Randy is committed to using the same process and techniques to produce all of our red wines. He doesn't assume a vineyard should taste a certain way and manipulate or promote any characteristics. He produces all of them the same way and the difference you taste is truly just the vineyard and appellation.

RH: Unique compared to others? Too often I think California winemakers think of Grenache as being too light, or being a rustic wine. I see Grenache as more of a pretty and elegant varietal, similar in a way to Pinot Noir. People tend to think that the longer we allow the fruit to hang on the vines the better the wines will be, thus "fixing" the too light problem. But this varietal in California thrives when picked at a more reasonable and traditional Brix level, exposing pretty pomegranate and cherry fruits with a satisfying peppercorn spice. You don't get that when you try to make a Grenache like a Cabernet. Rusticity is a different beast to tame. Grenache is susceptible to being tannic, which makes it a very difficult grape to work with. I'm willing to do the work necessary with the growers and in the winery that allows me to produce Grenache that people time and time again refer to as elegant. Sur lie ageing and batonnage also play a role in softening the tannins and building the rich mouthfeel.

Q7: Any specific reasons for each of the three we reviewed? (2014 CdP Blanc, 2013 Grenache Swansborough and 2013 Grenache Chevalier Family)

BH: CdP Blanc - Randy wanted to make a unique white wine and play with co-fermenting the grapes. These varietals aren't the norm in Napa so he knew he'd have to search around to find them. The first couple of vintages were sourced from Paso Robles, and today this blend comes from our El Dorado grower.

Swansborough Vineyard - from El Dorado and farmed by Ron Mansfield. Ron is a premier grower and Randy really wanted to buy some premium Grenache from him. We've been very pleased and just love Ron.

Chevalier is from the cooler Mendocino area so Randy knew this would offer a different wine from the warmer El Dorado climate.

Q8: Something fun to know, what else do you enjoy doing outside of wine-making?

RH: We really are working a lot right now with projects in California and Texas, and we stay pretty active physically. When we take time to breathe we are definitely spending time with friends and family, usually over good food and drinks. Time in the sun is always on the agenda, with some travel and long weekends sprinkled in. Some back burner items would be learning Italian, picking up a new instrument, and playing some golf.

It was a real treat to talk with Brooke and Randy about their estate and their path to opening it. It definitely takes a certain kind of person, actually people to drop everything and pick up somewhere else to live out a dream. They made that dream happen. The passion they have for the wine industry and the path they took to get to this moment making exceptional wines is truly inspirational and hopefully one day we will be able to work hand on in the wine industry. Take a look at the links below for estate information and tasting notes on their killer wines.

Additional Estate Information: Click Here

Tasting Notes: Read More