What Napa Valley’s most famous grower is thinking and doing today

10th July, 2013 by Catherine Seda Bugue

Standing in the middle of his historic Georges III vineyard, Napa Valley’s most renowned grape grower, Andy Beckstoffer, answered the question “how do you know a vineyard is great?” with the response “You have to taste the wines”.

Andy BeckstofferBeckstoffer owns some of the most prized vineyards in Napa Valley, farming over 1,000 acres in the valley as well as more than 3,600 acres total in Northern California’s top wine producing areas. To him, however, the final wine is the key. “We are not”, Beckstoffer said, “into making beautiful grapes, we are into making beautiful wines.”

Beckstoffer went on to explain, “The total equals more than the sum of its parts (ie. soil, climate, aspect and more). You must grow the grapes over a length of time to see the quality but the final test is wine made from these grapes by an experienced and skilled hand.”

Just as important as cultivating grapes and preserving these vineyards, he says, is who buys his grapes. The winemaker needs to be great or promising (if they have not yet made their mark) and needs to appreciate the vineyard’s contribution to quality, he continued. The buyer will also have the means, attitude, and ability to market the wines properly.

Beckstoffer made these comments at a dinner event called Twilight in the Vineyard, hosted by B Cellars winery. B Cellars produces premium quality, vineyard-designated wines from historic Napa Valley sites owned and farmed by Beckstoffer. Beckstoffer called B Cellars’ owner Jim Borsack “right out of central casting” in that he and partner Duffy Keys and investor Bill Cameron fit his ideal profile for those seeking to purchase his Napa Valley fruit.

When asked what was keeping him busy today, Beckstoffer said that he is re-planting 50 to 60 acres in three of his six Heritage Vineyards (vineyard sites of the highest quality with a rich history): Georges III, Missouri Hopper and Bourn/Hayne. With the 20 year life cycle of the vine, it is time for re-plantings after the second wave of phylloxera hit Napa Valley in the 1990s. He estimates that over 2,000 acres are being re-planted this year in Napa Valley.

Beckstoffer's Melrose vineyards in the Napa Valley

Beckstoffer’s Melrose vineyards in the Napa Valley

Beckstoffer once again is leading the industry in change. Our understanding of the roles that light and heat play on vines, he says, has grown substantially since the last major re-planting. Taking advantage of this new knowledge, Beckstoffer provided two examples of revisions he is implementing in the vineyard: Row directions will be changed to reduce sunburn on the grapes; and he is making changes to the tighter VSP trellising common during the last re-planting. The plan now is to open up the vines and allow for more light and air. The sun, heat and air will do things that pesticides and fungicides used to do.

For someone who has already fundamentally impacted the industry in numerous ways, including: instituting a price for grapes tied to the final retail price of the wine (at a ratio of 100 times, an $80 wine will be made with grapes priced at $8,000 per ton); and leading the Napa Valley Grape Growers in establishing the Wine Definition Ordinance requiring that 75% of grapes used in Napa Valley wines must come from the appellation, what is next for Beckstoffer?

Beckstoffer explained that when the Wine Definition Ordinance was established, “some things were left unclear” or were not apparent at that time. We are running out of uncommitted grapes in Napa and wineries want to expand, he said. He wonders where the grapes are going to come from. What is the intent of the rule? Direct to consumer, he continued, is getting more important, and wineries are developing more hospitality opportunities. But these must be kept in line with production. The agricultural aspects of creating these new facilities must be considered.

Beckstoffer also looks to the city of Napa to do more when it comes to the health of the wine industry. While it is strong, this has been done largely by the wineries. And while the city of Napa has taken on a larger role, they and not the growers and vintners need to do more for the needs of the industry. They need, he says, to get people and merchants more involved.

Given his influence on other key issues central to the wine industry, it is highly likely that this will not be the last time we hear from Beckstoffer on these subjects.

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