NAPA VALLEY, Calif. - A family of Oregon State University alumni have spent decades creating wines that are highly sought by restaurants and wine lovers, while keeping an eye on the environment.
Lamborn Family Vineyards in Napa Valley is receiving OSU's "Orange Spotlight" award, which highlights businesses and organizations either operated by Oregon State alums and faculty or who employ a large number of Oregon State graduates. These businesses demonstrate a dedication to community service, sustainability and innovation.
When Bob Lamborn and his son Michael bought 40 acres on Howell Mountain, which sits above the Napa Valley floor, the area was barely on the map. It was 1971, and Napa's reputation as one of the world's epicenters of winemaking had yet to emerge.
It was an independent operation from the start. Bob, who had attended OSU until he was drafted into World War II, had wanted some structure and complexity in his life - he and Mike planted and worked only eight of their acres with help from their family and friends. The rest they left untamed. They hired a friend and local vintner to make their first batches of zinfandel, which they released in 1982. They called their label Lamborn Family Vineyards - the name was simple and also captured the essence of the business. It was the very first "family" winery label in California.
In 1999, when they welcomed Mike's son Brian into the business, Lamborn, and even Howell Mountain, had kept their core values of independence and quality intact, even as Napa Valley was becoming blanketed by some of the biggest and most expensive vineyards in the world. In 2010, Lamborn is still focused on staying small so they can do everything themselves from the ground up, from farming the grapes to marketing the wine and everything in between.
For the Lamborns, it is a way to ensure that the 1,600 cases of cabernet and zinfandel they produce yearly is high quality, Brian says.
After nearly four decades, though, some things have changed. Bob Lamborn died in 2004 and Brian, after having taken over as the manager of marketing and sales, refined the way Lamborn sold its cabernet and zinfandel. Instead of selling their vintages to the general market, Brian, who graduated from OSU in 1997 with a degree in sociology, has focused mostly on creating word-of-mouth buzz for Lamborn's wines through getting them into fine dining restaurants.
"We started getting into more and more places that had sought-after wine lists," Brian Lamborn said. "The goal behind that was for people to start recognizing Lamborn in some of the nicest restaurants in the country, making the association of quality between the two, and for them to start buying directly from us."
A considerable portion of their sales now come from their website, which has helped buffer Lamborn Family Vinyards from the recession, which has left much of the wine industry reeling.
"We're blessed to have very loyal customers," Brian said. "These people know what our wines are like, and know from year to year what they'll get. We're lucky to have direct winery members who buy yearly, to the point where we consider these people not only our customers, but our friends."
Brian and Mike are dedicated to the land and growing grapes mindfully. They were one of the very first Napa Valley wineries to pursue the "Napa Green" program, which focuses on enhancing the watershed and restoring habitat. They've established owl boxes around the vineyard and encourage native owls to inhabit them. The owls prey upon pests including gophers and rabbits that can wreak havoc in the vineyard. They've established a ladybug colony, which goes a long way toward combating vine canopy pests like mites. They practice no-till farming, and only use their drip irrigation system when they have to.
"Our planted acreage is dwarfed by our unplanted land, which is forested and rich in wildlife. We're only 20 minutes from the heart of Napa Valley, but we feel like we're a world apart up here," says Brian.
They're also devoted to the community. They donate wine, time and money to more than 15 organizations to which they have developed close relationships, like Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation in the fight against pediatric cancer and Haley's Run for a Reason for Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood research.
In many ways, Brian credits his liberal arts education at Oregon State for teaching him that the world is full of possibilities, and to have the confidence to go after them. In addition to the work at Lamborn, Brian started his own tea company and an event company, Outdoor Wine Adventures.
"The faculty at Oregon State is incredibly motivational," he said. "I also forged some lifelong friendships that I truly believe would not have come from any other college."
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Brian Lamborn, 925-382-2282