Q&A with Gina Hildebrand of Lady of the Sunshine

Rebekah Pineda (Domestique Manager) x Gina Giugni (Winemaker)

Let's start with some icebreakers. What was your first car and what did you love about it? A 2004 Camry that didn’t last long. I totaled it at 17. Sorry, mom and dad. More importantly, my first tractor was a Kabota M8540 crawler :) 

What does a perfect winter day smell like to you? Pine, mountain misery shrub, daffodil bloom. I grew up with snow days in the spring in the Sierra Nevadas and the daffodils would always be the first in bloom.  

Okay, now, can you tell us a bit about your winemaking background? I'm a second generation biodynamic farmer and winemaker, following in my father's footsteps. I grew up on my family’s 90 acre ranch in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California, where we steward a 15 acre vineyard and winery, named Narrow Gate Vineyards. I studied winemaking at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and then spent the next few years traveling to work for different winemakers. After my first vintage working in the Edna Valley in 2014, I graduated from Cal Poly and went to Beaujolais for the 2015 vintage. After harvest, I spent the first six months of 2016 working for a vineyard and winery on the south island of New Zealand and then the last six months at a winery in the Willamette Valley. After Oregon, I worked for a small winery on Howell Mountain in Napa for the majority of 2017, until I launched Lady of the Sunshine. For that, I moved back to San Luis Obispo and started farming and making wine from the Chene Vineyard, which I'm converting to biodynamic farming practices and consider the home vineyard for Lady of the Sunshine. 

We often interact with customers who are intimidated by the world of wine and its lexicon. Growing up surrounded by wine, can you provide any insight on that challenge?  In my experience, wine has always been something that's approachable. It was a part of a lifestyle, my childhood, it was always an element of a meal. It's a rabbit hole, with endless stories that are filled with different varieties, regions, terroir, and styles. It’s a lifelong pursuit of exploration.  Anyone can enjoy a glass of wine, that’s the beauty of it.  
How did the collaboration with Domestique happen? How did it end up as a carbonic Primitivo? Jeff approached me with the opportunity at the beginning of last year.  I pitched three different vineyards that would yield three different wines and he was most drawn to my family’s property, Narrow Gate Vineyards, which was special for me too because it would be the first time that I'd made wine from the vineyard. It's been farmed with biodynamic practices since 2005, we graze cows on the property, we make our own compost and biodynamic preps. The vineyard has very diverse volcanic soils, loaded with quartz, located above the snow line at 2,500 feet in elevation. My father typically uses all the grapes from the property to make wine but we have about an extra acre of Primitivo that we were able to use for this project. The goal was to make a fun, fresh, chuggable red wine and we achieved this with carbonic maceration. 
Terroir, a big word in wine that can send somms rambling and normal people running. What influences your ideas and beliefs around terroir? It wasn’t until I started farming that I felt like I truly connected to the real joy of making wine and, when I reflect, where I experienced terroir for myself. It wasn’t until I was spending every single day in the vineyard, tending to the vines, the soil, the weeds, experiencing the rain and sunshine and wind and heat, that I felt I truly understood how a wine can speak of place. It helped bring the idea of terroir full circle for me, that’s why I want to farm as purely as possible so that I can capture the sense of place of where the wine comes from. It’s the idea of being a vigneron, which directly translates to winegrower or the person that is closely linked to the vine. Being a vigneron, and a part of every step within the vine to wine cycle, has been what I have fallen in love with and has been my terroir revelation.  

Recently, I was reading the new D’Agata book and he said, “if the grape variety is the vehicle, then terroir is the driver.” Looking at terroir from this perspective, what considerations went into the planting of Primitivo back in 2001. My father planted the vineyard in 2001 after transplanting our family from Southern California to the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. He chose the Sierra Foothills for its continental growing climate and for his ultimate love of Rhone varietals. He's always been captivated by Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, which actually make up the majority of the plantings at Narrow Gate. The dramatic climate of the mountains at 2,500 feet in elevation bring a strong summer heat and harsh winter with snow most years, weeding out several grape varieties that cannot thrive in these extremes. Being at the base of the Sierra Foothills Mountain range, the majority of the growing year has a big diurnal shift with hot days and cold nights. Primitivo has a very close resemblance to Zinfandel, which was planted in homage to the old California plantings of Zin that can be found throughout the region.