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Andrew Jefford: ‘Without the younger generation we’ll lose farming as it exists here’

Airy, it was: a high saddle at the seaward end of the Mayacamas ridge. The newly planted vineyards splayed upwards from the crux of tracks that met there. Smaller ridges, hazy fingers of blue and purple, broke the view down to San Pablo Bay. There was a picnic table close to the edge, with straw underfoot. A few orange and yellow calendula flowers had been laid carefully in its centre; ladybirds were discreetly mating on the clover. Idyllic? Maybe.

‘I worry about the younger generation,’ Gallica owner and winemaker Rosemary Cakebread said to me a few hours later. ‘It’s difficult for young people here in Napa even to buy a home, let alone a vineyard.

‘If you have any instinct to be a solo proprietor, you’ll need family money or people who believe in you. But without the younger generation we’ll lose farming as it exists here.’ She’s right. When the hedge-fund and tech billionaires buy up the last vineyard, Napa becomes a luxury-goods factory. That’s why those baby vines planted at the end of the ridge matter.

Napa reds are disarmingly beautiful. They take all the scrutiny that you can throw at them; they age winningly; yet – uniquely in the fine-wine pantheon – their appeal is universal, easy of access, unforbidding. Given local wealth (Silicon Valley lies down the road), land values have soared – up to $700,000 per acre for prime planted land in 2023 (equivalent to €1.6m a hectare: just a little more than Margaux, a little less than St-Julien, according to Vineyards Bordeaux’s August 2023 report).

‘Napa has made some of the greatest wines in the world,’ said Julia van der Vink, the viticulturist who has planted those vines at the end of the ridge with her partner, winemaker Rob Black, ‘but the culture that surrounds those wines is eroding. We came at it with nothing. Everyone told us it was impossible. But if you’re defeatist, then the next generation doesn’t get a shot. It doesn’t make sense to me that the next generation should leave. We wanted to hold down a fort here. My dream is that we’re shoulder-to-shoulder with others in 10 years.’

That sky vineyard is called Aerika. It was created with the help of 18 angel investors, six of whom are UK-based – and all of whom were prepared to support the idea of an owner- operated vineyard (Julia and Rob, under these arrangements, can keep majority ownership). Julia’s brother Nick has a financial background, which has helped with stitching the intricate acquisition together. The land (50 acres or just over 20ha, of which 20 acres/8.1ha will be planted) has pedigree. It was once part of Al Baxter’s Veedercrest Vineyards – and the 1972 Veedercrest Chardonnay was one of the wines in the landmark 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting event organised by the late Steven Spurrier.

If anyone can ‘turn the great hierarchy of agriculture over’ here, it should be Julia and Rob. She’s a Harvard graduate who, after working with Australia’s Mac Forbes and Mullineux in South Africa among others, has just finished eight years as vineyard manager at Harlan in Napa. He’s a widely travelled New Zealander who has worked in Spain, Oregon and Burgundy (with Comte Senard and François Labet of Château de la Tour); he made wine at Screaming Eagle between 2014 and 2023. There are no Aerika bottles yet, but I tasted barrel samples of its glitteringly vibrant Mount Veeder Cabernet from Wildwoods, a vineyard lying just a few miles to the north; and a perfumed Cabernet blend from nearby Wing Canyon Vineyard. I’m confident Aerika wines will be gorgeous.

This ‘money problem’ isn’t confined to Napa. Despite what are called SAFERs in France (official organisations with the power to intervene in agricultural and rural property transactions, partly with the aim of helping younger farmers and growers get a foothold), spiralling land values in Burgundy and the best parts of Bordeaux also exclude young newcomers not born to land ownership. Will Julia and Rob’s ‘little pirate ship’ succeed? Fingers crossed. And that their Jolly Roger inspires others, too.

In my glass this month

I’ve always loved Rosemary Cakebread’s tender and expressive Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon and Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, but this visit gave me a first taste of her Grenache: the 2021 from the Rossi Ranch in Sonoma. You’ll find her hallmarks of finesse, grace, subtlety and purity in this light, stealthy red. It’s layered with gentle strawberry – but the purring tannins (fermented with 25% whole cluster) help bring savoury resonance, too.

Gallica Grenache 2021

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