When an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner arrives from Lee Hudson, longtime grape-grower and winemaker in Napa’s Carneros region, I accept. Even though, every year, I go to my brother Tony’s house for the holiday, I accept—not only because Lee is an extraordinary host, but because he is the genius loci of his land. His Hudson Ranch and Vineyards, some 50 minutes northeast of San Francisco, sits on an expanse of oak woodland, with the San Pablo Bay glimmering beyond. Dinner will be served outside, on a terrace overlooking all of this. Undoubtedly, some awfully good wine will be poured, and the meal will be unforgettable, because David Tanis—cookbook author, columnist for the New York Times and chef emeritus at Chez Panisse—is preparing it, using ingredients grown mainly on the ranch itself. Also, I know Lee well enough to predict that his cast of characters will not be dull. So I put aside my guilt about my brother and say yes to Lee.
I rumble through the ranch and up the world’s longest driveway to the villa, perched on top. It’s surrounded by lush English and Italian gardens. I pass monstrous pumpkins—the size of Mini Coopers—anchoring the vegetable garden. Last year, Lee’s landscaper Leonardo Ureña won a prestigious contest in nearby Half Moon Bay for a record-breaking pumpkin of 1,704 pounds, and the ones growing now aren’t far off. Other enormous vegetables come into view, like a shady trellis of dangling, elongated green gourds, some so hefty they hang supported in hammocks.
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When I arrive at the house, the first person I spot is Lee, whom I know because his wife, Cristina Salas-Porras, has been a great friend of mine for years. Lee is standing in his wine cellar, amid prosciutti and sausages hanging from the rafters, dressed ruggedly in a cowboy hat, a pressed white shirt and jeans. Most of the wines tonight, he says, will be from his own vineyards, but he’s also choosing wines from Kongsgaard, Kistler, Ramey and Arietta—other Napa stars for whom Lee has long grown grapes. He went to graduate school with many of these guys at the University of California at Davis in the 1970s, and they’re old friends.