November 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Raising the Bar in Sonoma Valley

Hamel Family Wines opens a modern winery with world-class ambitions

by Andrew Adams
Hamel Family Wines
Red grape clusters arrive at Hamel Family Wines in 40-pound lugs and are destemmed before hand sorting and whole-berry fermentations. Photo: Kate Nagle

What started with a weekend home and an acre of Cabernet vines has grown into one of the most modern and well-equipped wineries in Sonoma Valley, supplied by more than 90 acres of vineyards.

Hamel Family Wines owner and founder George F. Hamel Jr. says in 2006 he and his wife were looking for a place to escape to from their fogbound home in San Francisco, for a little sun in the summer. The couple eventually found a home in Kenwood, Calif., that also had a 1-acre vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. The Hamels bought the place in September of that year and had just enough time to harvest the grapes and make wine.

That first harvest produced about 300 cases but also sparked an interest in Hamel to solve the riddle of the wine business. “We did love wine, and what intrigued me at the time was why, in a crowded market, do some people consistently succeed and others not? How do you differentiate yourself? The kind of challenge on finding a business model that could be replicated was interesting,” he says.


  • The Hamel family will make the 2014 vintage in their new and modern Sonoma Valley winery.
  • In the cellar, the focus is on whole-berry fermentations in steel, concrete or barrel--often followed by extended maceration.
  • The estate features a spacious cave, multiple tasting areas, catering kitchen and other amenities.

As co-founder of ValueAct Capital Management, a San Francisco-based hedge fund currently managing around $14 billion in investments, Hamel had the resources to start a wine business, but it was the prospect of a family endeavor that created momentum for a winery.

After the Hamels made their own wine, their second-youngest son, John B. Hamel II, discovered home brewing while attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison. John Hamel had planned to pursue a master’s degree in writing but decided to take a year to gain work experience and joined the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms, a work-study program that offers assignments throughout the world. John Hamel’s first post was in the Napa Valley, where he discovered an interest in winemaking and grapegrowing. “For John, the combination of science, art and not working at a desk, all of those things got his interest,” says his father, George Hamel.

With property in Sonoma and experience making wine, the Hamels began to seriously consider a wine business. George Hamel, however, wanted John to learn as much as possible about winemaking to ensure his son was really committed to it. “We said if we’re going to do something you need to get as much knowledge as you can as quickly as you can.”

That education included a winemaking certificate from the University of California, Davis, as well as an internship at a winery in Australia and then helping to produce Hamel Family Wines at a custom-crush facility in Sonoma.

Family business takes shape
John could manage production, but as the family’s plans had grown to include an estate winery, they knew they needed someone to help run sales and day-to-day management of the business. That’s when the Hamels’ oldest son, George F. Hamel III, received an invitation to attend the Telluride Wine Festival, the first public tasting where the family would be pouring their wines.

George Hamel III, a graduate of Bard College who was working in banking in New York at the time, says he figured he’d come out to the event in Colorado to enjoy some wine and support the family. Instead, he received a pitch about helping to build an estate, and he bought into the idea.

Both Hamel sons agree that each has different yet complementary skills. The goal, however, is not just to have fun working together as a family but produce world-class wines at a premier winery. And while it may be a family effort, the Hamels do have some serious industry experience helping them with their effort. Phil Coturri is the vineyard manager, and Martha McClellan is the winemaking consultant.

“Instead of just doing a family project and having fun together, our aspirations became: We can be a world-class family business. And let’s not just say this is the best we can do with these resources, let’s do what it takes to be world-class,” says the elder George Hamel.

If the goal is world-class prestige, the Hamels did well in choosing a Sonoma Valley estate with some heritage. The winery sits on land that was planted with wine grapes by the Civil War general Joseph Hooker and then later owned by George and Phoebe Hearst in the late 1800s. The property eventually came to be owned by the Parducci family, which sold it to the Hamels.

The objective during the design phase was to incorporate the estate’s natural beauty into the building while still providing an exceptional experience for the visitor. Hamel admits he first had visions of a French chateau, but he credits architects Doug Thornley and Amber Evans for creating something that is more of a natural fit for the property and the family’s hospitality goals. “Instead of building what we told him to build, he listened to what we said we wanted and created all of those things,” says George Hamel. “It was a great experience.”

Thornley, who happened to be touring the winery with a client when Wines & Vines visited, says he wanted the building to enhance “the perfect Sonoma setting” by featuring expansive views and seamlessly incorporating outside space. “One of the aspects was really to have the building reflect the land, like really make this project feel like it’s in Sonoma and nowhere else,” he says. “The rammed earth walls capture that in the sense it’s the actual dirt from the site that gives it its color and a sense of permanence. It’s not like it’s a trendy solution, it’s really a solution that will hold up over time.”

One memorable moment for Thornley and the Hamels was when the architect brought a scale model of his proposed winery to the building site. “One of my favorite moments was throwing a model on top of an ATV and coming up here and starting to understand how the sun was going to react, and the model actually emulated how shade and shadow was going to work, and it was really helpful for everyone to understand what we were thinking for our clients,” Thornley says.

The rammed earth walls are complemented with solar panels, a living roof and recycled wood. While it’s a relatively large structure, the winery blends into the hillsides surrounding it and is invisible from the nearby and busy Highway 12. That’s part of the Hamels’ strategy. “The whole idea is when you actually turn into the tasting room, that’s the big ah-ha moment that you see these beautiful, spectacular views of Sonoma Valley, and until then things are more guarded,” says George Hamel III. The landscaping architect on the project was Jonathan Plant & Associates, which also worked on Colgin Winery and Trinchero Napa Valley.

Tastings are booked by appointment, and the winery has about 5,000 square feet of hospitality space to offer a variety of options for guests ranging from tables on the patio to a private room in the cave. “We have a lot of different experiences depending on what our guests want from their time and when they come back, which we hope would be time and time again,” George Hamel III says. “It’s not the same exact experience they have six times, but we could create six different experiences that are all different, so it just keeps them wanting to come back for more.”

The winery is permitted to hold 20 special events per year and has a full catering kitchen and garden. The main hospitality area and staff offices are housed in central building located in front of the crush pad, fermentation cellar and cave entrances. Trucks and tractors delivering fruit access the crush pad via a horseshoe-shaped driveway that runs between the two main buildings. Construction began in 2012, and the Hamels will are processing grapes for the first time at the winery this year. Wright Contracting Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif., acted as the general contractor, and Cotati, Calif.-based Westside Mechanical Inc. handled winery refrigeration, plumbing and drains.

Everything from the light fixtures in the tasting room to the floor of the tank room is of the highest quality. The Hamels would not disclose the amount of their total investment in the winery but say it was in line with what they were budgeting.

Gentle processing for whole berries
John Hamel says all of the crush pad equipment was sourced through P&L Specialties with a primary goal of gentle processing to preserve whole berries for fermentation.

Grapes are handpicked and delivered in small, 40-pound bins so that none of the grapes at the bottom of the bins are crushed. The bins are dumped onto a sorting table that leads to an elevator, which takes the grapes to a Delta E1 Destemmer. After they are destemmed, the grapes run through a Le Trieur sorter before hitting another shaker table for further sorting.

Sorted berries fall into stainless steel sumps, which a forklift operator then lifts and dumps into the tanks. “I mean you can make arguments all day about what actually will break up the fruit more—dropping it from a certain height probably damages it to a certain extent, but we try to be as gentle as possible,” John Hamel says. “Everything is (moved by) gravity, and generally our wines will only see a pump during fermentation.”

Most of the tanks at the winery were custom made by Santa Rosa Stainless Steel and feature dual jackets, built-in pump-over tubes and irrigators. When everything is filled and fermenting, John Hamel says running pump overs will be as simple as moving a Yamada air pump from tank to tank. In addition to the stainless steel tanks, Hamel Family Wines also uses concrete fermentation tanks and eggs by Nomblot.

With a brand new winery, John Hamel says he’d like to ferment with the ambient or “native” yeasts, but he has the resources should that prove ineffective.

After a cold soak of a few days, John Hamel says he can warm the tanks up to see if that starts fermentation or just add yeast. “We’re going to try and do everything native, but basically if it’s not going we’ll inoculate. We’re not dogmatic about it,” he says. “When you’re not inoculating, your best bet for getting things going is to have good temperature control, and each one of these tanks is made for that.”

The concrete tanks by Nomblot couldn’t be bolted to the floor to meet seismic standards, so the Hamels had custom concrete cradles built for the tanks so that they could shake in place and not topple over. The concrete tanks are a new direction that John Hamel feels will fit the winemaking program quite well.

“We do a lot of barrel fermentations as well, and concrete was something in between wood and stainless steel,” he says. “We’re pretty excited about it. We’ve put a big investment into it, but from our research and people we talk to, people have been pretty happy with the results. It gives us another tool in the winery to get where we need to go.”

For barrel fermentations, John Hamel says he removes the barrelhead, fills each barrel with grapes and uses OxO racks for rolling the barrels to break up the cap during fermentation.

Once red lots are done fermenting, the free run drains directly to barrels for aging or into smaller portable tanks that can be lifted with a forklift for gravity-powered barrel filling. John Hamel says that before pressing he will leave the Cabernet on its skins for up to two months to give the wine more structure and to balance the fruity flavors of whole-berry fermentation. “You’re getting bright, really fresh fruit flavors, so we use extended maceration to add a little backbone and structure so that you’re getting that freshness but you’re also getting the depth and structure of the tannins you want.”

The Hamels have a JLB 5 press by Bucher Vaslin for reds. John Hamel admits it is a bit small, but he keeps nearly every vineyard lot, barrel and press lot separate, so he’s frequently working with small amounts of wine. This also means the cave houses a variety of wines in kegs, carboys and 30-gallon and smaller barrels that are all awaiting blending trials.

John Hamel says he’s done some trials with American and Hungarian oak, but he’s sticking with French oak for the Hamel wines. He uses about half neutral and half new oak, and he says some of his preferred barrel suppliers are Taransaud, Baron and Vincent Darnajou. Barrels are stored in the 12,000-square-foot cave that has entrances on both sides of the 7,000-square-foot production building.

Magorian Mine Services designed and dug the wine cave, and excavation proved relatively simple with the contractor removing about 10 to 15 feet of material per day. At three spots in the cave, the Hamels opted to leave the natural rock exposed, providing a cross view of their estate soil. The layers of different colored soils makes for a striking, natural aesthetic to the cave interior. The effect is heightened by concrete egg fermentors that have been placed in front of the exposed rock walls. The eggs are used for the winery’s Sauvignon Blanc wines. Grapes are pressed with a Puelo SF-22 press from Carlsen & Associates, and the juice is settled in a portable tank and then racked to the eggs.

The Hamels’ winery is permitted to produce up to 30,000 cases, but George Hamel says they’ll likely never reach that point. He says he didn’t particularly want to repeat the permit process, so he sought far more capacity than the business really needed. The existing production facility could handle 10,000 cases, but the Hamels plan to only make around 4,000 cases this year and eventually grow to about 6,000 cases. John Hamel says the winemaking program also doesn’t involve quick tank turnaround, so he’ll likely be using almost all of that 10,000-case capacity to produce half as much wine.

Finished wines receive little fining, and the Hamels don’t plan to filter. They have used a mobile bottling line in the past and plan to continue to do so in the future. The wines are packaged in Bruni Glass with M.A. Silva Corks and Ramondin USA capsules.

Noted label artist Tom Rodrigues created original artwork depicting a stuffed badger for the Hamel Family Wines label. The badger is not directly related to the multiple generations of Hamels who attended the University of Wisconsin, but rather a family legend about a well-intentioned anniversary present that almost caused cardiac arrest and later provided inspiration for the label. The whole story is explained in detail on the winery website,

Limited production ties into the Hamels’ goal of managing a premier estate with a focus on direct-to-consumer sales. “We’re creating a sustainable family business that has world-class ambitions in terms of quality, and quality all the way through from how we care about the grapes to how we make our wines to how we deliver the experience to a select group of people who appreciate what we’re doing,” George Hamel says.

Hillside and historic vineyards
The original 1-acre vineyard has grown to more than 90 bearing acres with 25 acres in development, and the Hamels now own a few notable Sonoma vineyards. The family purchased the 2-acre Stellwagen Vineyard and the 6-acre Chauvet Vineyard (both in Sonoma Valley). The Stellwagen Vineyard was planted in the 1880s and is about 90% Zinfandel. The Hamels have renamed it Armor Plate Vineyard. The Chauvet vineyard is also Zinfandel and has been managed by Coturri since the 1970s.

Both vineyards will support the Hamels’ Zinfandel program, but the family also purchased the Nuns Canyon vineyard in the new Moon Mountain AVA, which is situated in the hills above the winery. The Nuns Canyon vineyard is comprised of about 60 planted acres with 13 more in development. The Hamels also have nearly 30 acres of estate vines, which include a small portion of Grenache. The original vineyard is now part of 6 acres planted almost entirely to Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon used for the Hamel Family Wines’ white program.

A small demonstration vineyard is planted near the tasting room and includes a mix of two Cabernet Sauvignon clones, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. George Hamel III says this vineyard will be featured on tours, and they plan to make a field blend with the grapes and sell the wine as a tasting room special.

All of the Hamels’ vines will soon be certified through California Certified Organic Farmers. The hillside property is managed through a partnership with Coturri’s Enterprise Vineyards, and what grapes the Hamels don’t use for their own wines they sell to other wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties. “We’re less interested in Biodynamics from a marketing perspective or from the moon cycle perspective,” George Hamel says, adding that if the property is going to bear the family’s name, his utmost concern is that it produces interesting wines that are unique to the site.

Despite a relatively quiet launch over the past summer, the tasting room was packed on a warm afternoon in late July. The crowd was putting a bit of stress on the new staff, which was trying to seat newcomers while still helping those folks lingering over their glasses.

George Hamel was there in the center of the maelstrom, setting people up for a tasting and checking to see if they’d like a tour of the new winery. In September, the Hamels hosted a $10,000-per-couple dinner at the winery as a fundraiser for the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction, and the family chipped in an additional $100,000 to raise a total of $350,000, which helped the auction bring in a record of more than $4 million.

The winery and vineyards by themselves are an impressive investment, but the Hamels also appear to be committing themselves to making a successful and sustainable family winery a reality. “We’ve raised the bar on ourselves,” George Hamel says. “We’re not trying to be Napa in Sonoma or be the best in Sonoma, we’re trying to be world class regardless of location.”

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