Who rules in Napa? the wine makers or the grape growers?

california, shafer,napa valley, wine maker, grape grower People & Places Articles
  • Friday 16 January 2009

Do the grape growers or the winemakers rule the roost in California?
JANICE FUHRMAN considers the troubled relationship between the two

It’s a well-worn cliché, even in the New World, that wine is made in the vineyard. Everyone touts the virtues of carefully farmed grapes in today’s higher-quality, distinctive California wines, and some of this can be traced to innovative grape growers.

While competing interests, antagonisms and even social differences exist betweenwinemakers and growers, most regard the relationship as symbiotic. ‘We have great input, but in the end winemakers make wine, so we can’t take so much credit for the vineyards because it ends up in their hands,’ says one of Napa Valley’s leading growers, Andy Beckstoffer.

‘People will say it’s the growers versus the vintners, but what I’ve tried hard to do is say “we’re in this together”.’ A native of Richmond, Virginia, Beckstoffer, 68, retains a distinct Southern twang some 40 years after arriving in the Napa Valley, and his tall, lean physique is usually clad in blue jeans and topped with a cowboy hat.

He might look more at home on a cattle ranch than a wine-growing estate, but this is the domain he carved out for himself when, as a young man with no farming experience, he bought into the then-unglamorous world of Napa wine.

He’s since whittled it into a slick operation worth $200 million (£130m) by some accounts, adding to and polishing it into northern California’s largest family-owned grape-selling business.

Beckstoffer won’t comment on the value of his landholdings, preferring not to provide fodder for ‘greedy grower’ stories. Though he can present himself engagingly, he isn’t popular in some quarters of the Napa Valley; he was eyed suspiciously as a corporate arriviste in the late 1960s and is resented today because of his advocacy for himself and other growers, and his resulting success.

‘He’s a big personality,’ says Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, which Beckstoffer helped found in 1975. ‘He cuts a swathe.’ Or put another way, ‘His ego is as big as God’s,’ according to one Napa resident who has dealt with Beckstoffer for many years.

But if his negotiating style and business acumen – vintner Volker Eisele calls him ‘the smartest guy in the room’ – have brought huge personal success, he and his fellow growers claim they have also benefited winemakers in California and consumers everywhere the state’s wine flows.

So to what extent are growers like Beckstoffer responsible for Californian quality? Today, Beckstoffer Vineyards owns more than 1,200ha (hectares), split between Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties (see map, left).

In Napa, a hectare of prime vineyard can be worth $120,000/£78,000. The company sells grapes to 50 producers in Napa and another 20 to 30 in Mendocino and Lake County, north of Napa.

At the top end, these include Paul Hobbs, Schrader, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Clos du Val, Tor and Selexis. NapaCabernets with a Beckstoffer vineyard designation start at $95 (£62), and are among the highest-rated wines today.

Style guru

Not content to simply farm his grapes, Beckstoffer does not shy away from some of the industry’s most contentious issues. He led the debate on Napa’s increasingly

alcoholic, bigger wine styles through a series of public seminars in 2005 under the auspices of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, which he co-founded 30 years earlier. As he sees it, increasing hang times – resulting in increased sugar and alcohol levels in the wines – created two problems.

One was that growers were not being adequately compensated because longer hang times meant grapes were dehydrating, thereby reducing tonnage. (Most grape contracts are predicated on weight.) He also perceived a serious problem for Napa’s reputation in making high-alcohol wines that don’t go with food, and don’t age.

‘As a valley, we need to be concerned if we get tagged for making red wines that are high alcohol, that compete with food and that don’t stand the test of time. Wines of a great wine region have to stand the test of time.

’The seminars were the start of a move towards a new style of wine, Beckstoffer believes. ‘90% of winemakers don’t like to make these wines – they’re forced to because of the wine scores. As the influence of Parker and the Wine Spectator abates there will be less pressure.

I sell grapes to people who make this stuff and I'll get it from them for saying this, but it’s still something that needs to evolve and growers are really helping in that evolution. You’re gonna get more elegant and more restrained wines in the future.’

Not everyone agrees with Beckstoffer. Many winemakers think the market does, and should, accommodate a range of styles. ‘Wine sales and prices tell us that, domestically and internationally, wine enthusiasts like Cabernets with lower acidity, softer tannins, and higher ripeness and alcohol,’ says winemaker Celia Masyczek.

Caymus owner and winemaker Chuck Wagner believes it’s the American way. ‘There is an American spirit that goes along with all that we do. The personal choices of the grape grower and/ or winemaker have varied effects and have brought us to where we are today.’

Many winemakers also dispute a clear connection between alcohol percentage and ageability, maintaining that slightly higher alcohols and higher overall extract

give wines ageworthiness.

‘Ultimately, for flavour and for ageability, the name of the game is balance, not a number from a lab,’ says Shafer Vineyards’ John Shafer, a co-founder, with Beckstoffer, of the Grape Growers group. Beckstoffer arrived in Napa as a newly minted MBA working for food and drinks manufacturer Heublein.

He helpedit buy a majority interest in United Vintners, which owned Inglenook, one of Napa Valley’s oldest quality wineries, and negotiated the purchase of BeaulieuVineyards, a jewel of the region. Yet many believe that Heublein’s ownershipdrove Inglenook into the ground and did nothing to benefit Beaulieu.

Three years later, when Heublein decided it no longer wanted to deal with the United Farmworkers Union and other aspects of the grape-growing business, it handed

Beckstoffer the opportunity to be an ‘entrepreneurial farmer’ by selling him a subsidiary set up to oversee the supply of grapes to Beaulieu and Inglenook, as well as some 200ha he had acquired for them in Napa and Mendocino.

Early days

It was 1973, and many Napa growers were cultivating varieties like Colombard and Napa Gamay (Valdeguié). With the help of the few trained viticulturalists around then, as well as André Tchelistcheff, architect of the Napa Valley, Beckstoffer production, replanting 200ha with Cabernet Sauvignon, doubling the number of those vines in the valley.

He brought in drip irrigation in southern Carneros and focused on growing better grapes with closer vine spacing and trellis experiments. By the mid-’70s, he was siding with

consumers at federal hearings on changing designations of appellations of origin.

Early on, he says, it was growers, not winemakers, who joined consumers in expanding discussions to include upping the requisite appellation and varietal contents in a bottle from 51% to 75%. Beckstoffer believes this was key in improving wine quality and truth-inlabelling for consumers.

‘These guys could use 51% Cabernet Sauvignon and call it a Cabernet and add whatever else they wanted to cheapen their stuff. You could say “Napa Valley” and use only 51% of Napa grapes.

Consumers started a backlash and we growers backed it, instead of backing the industry. Now wineries had to succeed with wine quality, not as some tourist trap selling t-shirts and glasses.’ It was at this time that Beckstoffer developed a formula to determine grape prices.

Basic agricultural commodity pricing had been the norm, but hisformula tied the grape price to the retail price of the bottle they were going into.

If a vintner was selling a bottle for $25 (£16), Beckstoffer’s grape price per ton

would be 100 times that. To those who grumble that the growers have been overzealous in pushing for higher grape prices, he says, ‘If there’s no revenue to the land it can’t be preserved as agriculture.

We have to get revenue to the land, not just to the brand.’ In 1977, Robert Mondavi was one of the first vintners to accept it. ‘Today, nobody argues with the bottle price formula,’ says Beckstoffer. Beckstoffer’s leadership in Napa and the leadership of other Napa growers at message of better grapes through improved vineyard practices.

When he first entered the business, Beckstoffer felt grape growers were second-class citizens. Now, he says, they enjoy a seat at the table beside winemakers. For sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, innovation has come from a less heralded region: Lodi in central California.

Since growers created the Lodi Winegrape Commission in the early 1990s, the area has been dedicated to environmentally progressive farming, and was the first in the state to create a self-assessment programme and standards for certified sustainable practices. In 2008, more than 4,000ha qualified for certification under its ‘Lodi Rules’.

‘The winegrape-grower community in California has been more proactive than any agricultural community in reducing costs, improving quality and consistency, and being kinder to the environment,’ says Andy Hoxsey, a grower who owns 260ha of Napa Valley vineyards. ‘We’re the leader of the pack.’

Napa growers influenced wine quality when they replanted after phylloxera, in

the late 1980s. This included new root stocks, multiple clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, changing trellis systems from California sprawl to vertical shoot positioning, altering row directions to canopies to let air and light do what fungicides had been doing.

All of this, they say, resulted in more sensitivity to the environment and better wines. But not everyone gives the growers quite so much credit. Volker Eisele, a past president of the Napa Grape Growers Association, says, ‘The push for quality in Napa did not come from grape growers.

The real understanding of quality came from wineries, especially small ones. Only when you make wine do you truly understand what is needed.’

Winemakers such as Helen Turley, Mark Aubert, Phillipe Melka and Craig Williams, among others, led the push for better wines by paying such close attention to the vineyards from which their grapes came, Eisele believes.

Today, 86% of the more than 300 members of the Napa Valley Vintners own vineyards. Eisele contends that grape growers in general are more likely to overcrop – thus growing lesser grapes – than many wineries that put their own names on the bottles. ‘When you’re only a farmer you are forced to squeeze blood out of the soil by economic necessity.’

Out of site

Many leading growers also have their own labels. The Napa Wine Company label is owned by Hoxsey, the Laird Family Estate label is owned by the family that owns more vineyards than anyone in Napa (see box, above), and Lee Hudson, one of Napa’s premier growers with 65ha in Carneros, has a small label, Hudson Vineyards.

Beckstoffer dropped his own label after a few years because, he says, he didn’t enjoy the sales and marketing. But Beckstoffer doesn’t shy away from adding his name to some of Napa’s elite wines, in the form of vineyard designations – another area where he maintains growers have been influential.

‘We took the lead in starting a trend toward sitespecific wines,’ he says. ‘We wouldn’t sell our good grapes to people unless they would vineyard designate. As a result, there are better and certainly moreunique wines, and the consumer has benefited from that in a big way.’

Hudson licenses his name to 12 wineries that use Hudson Vineyards on their labels, including Patz & Hall, Kistler and Kongsgaard. ‘I don’t let them unless I know it’s coming from a block with distinctive grapes, and the brand is worthy of the block.

I don’t give it to people I haven’t worked with, but suggest they buy my fruit for a few years first.’ This serves the consumer, he maintains, because it’s true vineyard designation. ‘If you’re going to do vineyard designation, then really do it, like they do it in Burgundy.

When it says Bonnes Mares it’s coming from Bonnes Mares – that plot of land. It’s not coming from Gevrey- Chambertin. Soon, I’m going to up the ante and make people put the specific name of the block on the bottle.’ In the end, Beckstoffer says the most important thing to him is stewardship of the land.

He lauds the role grape growers played in bringing about Napa’s Agricultural Preserve, which since 1968 has legally protected productive agricultural land from development, and believes that without it, the valley would now have more houses than grape vines.

He has formed a legal trust that prevents his descendants from selling his 36ha portion of the famous To Kalon vineyard. Eventually, he expects to place as many as 200ha of Napa – ‘anything that’s really good vineyard land’ – in the trust so it remains as agriculture land or open space. ‘My family can farm it, I hope they do, but to me it’s putting down roots that will be there forever.

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