Summit Creek Beef and Sumner Vineyards in Hayfork
● By Jon Lewis
Never Too Late
Story and Photos by Jon Lewis
At first, Trinity County was an alpine oasis that Mike Sumner and his wife, Polly, retreated to for a break from their fast-paced, high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley. The couple acquired a summer vacation home near Lewiston and used it as a jumping-off point for backpacking adventures in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
Sumner had long held back-to-the-land desires, but it was hard to act on them with three young boys, a full-time job and a home near San Jose. In 2002, when Sumner retired as head of Latin America operations for BEA Systems (a global software company that was snapped up by Oracle in 2008 for $8.5 billion), he decided it was time to act.
He found a 650-acre ranch in a valley on the outskirts of Hayfork, renovated a house on the property, added a barn and made it their new home. While Polly Sumner continued her career in the tech field (she’s the chief adoption officer with Salesforce, a San Francisco-based cloud-computing business), Sumner turned his attention to his rural adventure.
“It was a pretty major change, but it was something I’d wanted to do all my life. I’ve always been thinking about farming since the kids were little,” he says. “I thought it’d be a great way to live but there was no way to make a living at that point.” As close as he got to the farm life back then was assisting his children with their 4-H and FFA projects.
The first order of business was establishing Summit Creek Beef, his grass-fed beef cattle operation. Sumner’s cattle graze in Hayfork and on 240 acres of pasture he purchased in Douglas City; the beef is sold at stores in Hayfork and Weaverville and at farmers markets. Ryen Rouke, a fifth-generation member of a Hayfork ranching family, is Sumner’s ranch foreman.
After adding a smaller sheep-raising component, Sumner started seriously tinkering with another passion he’s had for more than three decades: wine. After planting some Pinot Noir vines on his ranch, he set about educating himself on the fine points of viticulture and winemaking.
Already armed with a business degree from San Francisco State University, Sumner picked up a winemaking certificate through the UC Davis Extension and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry through an online program from Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Sumner also soaked up whatever local knowledge was available and counts Keith Groves, the winemaker at Alpen Cellars in Trinity Center, as an invaluable resource. During his frequent trips to France (Polly’s work with Salesforce involves a lot of time in Europe), Sumner, who speaks French, spends a lot of time in Bordeaux and Burgundy talking to winemakers there.
“The point of making wine is you’re never done learning how to make it,” Sumner says. “We’ve changed how we prune, irrigate, fertilize … I think we’re getting better every year.”
Sumner Vineyards was formally launched in 2012 when Sumner purchased a 50-acre parcel in Hayfork that had 10 acres planted in mature Pinot Noir vines. A winery soon followed and now, after five years of hard work and innovation, Sumner Vineyards is bottling between 2,000 and 2,500 cases a year.
“It’s more than I can drink so I have to sell it,” Sumner jokes.
The keys to good wine? Sumner says it starts, naturally enough, with quality grapes and some tender, loving—and high-tech—care. Early in the growing season, Sumner sends vine clippings to a lab in Lodi for analysis and the results, received via email, tell him what ratio of nine different nutrients need to be added to the irrigation water in a system known as “fertigation.”
Special care is taken after the harvest as well. “You need to treat grapes gently and don’t crush them too hard. The less you have to press the juice out of grapes, the better off you are,” Sumner says.
Sumner uses a chilled fermentation process and clarifies or filters his wine with bentonite clay to give it exceptional clarity and remove any lingering yeast and tannins.
Sumner Vineyards’ current lineup includes California Cowboy Red, a highly drinkable $12 Pinot meant to be paired with rough-and-tumble fare like hearty burgers and flank steak; an $18 Pinot Noir that fully reflects Hayfork’s warm days and cool nights; a $12 Rose from a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes that is both fruity and dry; and a $15 Pinot Gris that matches well with chicken and vegetable dishes.
Sumner says he’ll plant four acres of Chardonnay vines in the spring and other varietals will no doubt be added as his experience and knowledge grows. “I’m doing what I love, even if it’s kind of late in life,” the 71-year-old winemaker says with a smile.
Sumner Vineyards wines are available at Kent’s Market, Tops Market, Liquor Barn and online.