Meet the Grape Farmers of Napa Valley
Not all growers in this prime appellation want to make their own wine.
If you want to drink wine made using Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown by Charlie Wolleson, you’ll have to buy a bottle from Chateau Montelena Winery.
Herb and Irene Christian’s entire harvest goes into one of Sequoia Grove’s blends.
Bettinelli Vineyards has properties scattered throughout Napa Valley, so its grapes might be in wines produced by Franciscan, Sterling or one of 18 other wineries.
None of these grape growers produce their own wines, but farmers like Wolleson and the Christians, who sell all of their grapes, are getting increasingly rare.
For the most part, these farmers have contracts or handshake agreements with wineries. Everything is spelled out: the number of years, the price and quantity of fruit, the manner in which the grapes are grown and who will do the actual work—the farmer, the winery, a vineyard management firm or some combination of the three.
Relations between grape seller and buyer are usually cordial, but like any business—especially one predicated on weather—tensions can sometimes run high. Sonoma-based winemaker Paul Hobbs admits he’s had his fair share of heated exchanges with growers and farmhands over the years, giving examples of arguments of when to thin to which crew to use in the vineyard, but at the end of the day, collaboration reigned.
Here are five farmers who “just” grow grapes.
Beckstoffer Vineyards, Rutherford
If Napa Valley had first-growth vineyards, the list would be packed with Beckstoffer-owned properties—To Kalon, Dr. Crane, Las Piedras, Georges III, Missouri Hopper.
But it was a lesser-pedigreed property, Melrose Vineyard in Carneros, that an Easterner named Andy Beckstoffer purchased in 1973, four years after moving his young family west.
That became the starting point for one of the most prestigious grape-growing outfits in Napa Valley and the North Coast.
Now well into its second generation, Beckstoffer Vineyards is known for the quality of its grapes and for the management’s staunch support of growers’ rights, including being a founding member of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association in 1975.
Today, Andy’s son David (above), a Wharton MBA with 10 years’ experience at construction giant Bechtel, oversees the family operation. It encompasses 10 Napa Valley vineyards that total more than 1,000 acres and employs 75 full-time workers.
Although he admits he doesn’t get his hands dirty that often, David’s amused that grapes are growing outside of his windows.
“In general, what I learned at Bechtel was how to deal with technology,” he says.
Now David applies that knowledge to farming.
“We’ve looked at winemaking, even a joint venture, but it’s really a different operation,” Beckstoffer says. “We haven’t found the right model—at least not yet.”
Now in his early 50s, he hopes one of the “grandchildren” will eventually take over Beckstoffer.
“But my father never pressured me to come back,” he says. “It would have to be their decision.”
It’s in there: Beckstoffer sells grapes to dozens of different wineries, but those who have bottlings with Beckstoffer-designated labels include Alpha Omega, B Cellars, Bounty Hunter, Bure, Carter, Knights Bridge, Macauley, Myriad, Paul Hobbs, Provenance, Realm, Schrader, Signorello and Tor.
Paul Goldberg, Giancarlo and Larry Bettinelli
Bettinelli Vineyards, Yountville
“I get to see what’s happening in the whole valley,” says Paul Goldberg, who looks after 10 vineyards totaling more than 350 acres that family-run Bettinelli Vineyards owns or leases.
“My father-in-law, Larry Bettinelli, was one of the original vineyard managers in the valley before starting his own business about 20 years ago,” says Goldberg, 31. He studied at Cal Poly and worked in Chile before coming home to run the business along with his brother-in-law, Giancarlo Bettinelli.
“We try hard to match the right vineyard with the right winery partner,” Goldberg says. Bettinelli sells grapes to 20-some wineries, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We have radically different growing areas,” he says “For example, it takes about an hour to drive from the Carneros to Pope Valley, and the temperature might vary by 30 degrees.”
Goldberg says Bettinelli supplies grapes to several small wineries, “who don’t like their names mentioned, but we also sell to large wineries such as Sterling and Franciscan.”
One vineyard might provide grapes for 10 or more wineries, all with different needs.
“We have to work really closely to tailor our farming decisions to their specific styles,” he says.
Bettinelli’s strength is technology. Goldberg can monitor and control remote vineyards from an office command center.
“We can see each vineyard and set parameters on irrigation, when wind machines come on to prevent frost damage, even start diesel motors for pumps,” he says.
Quality is the watchword.
“If you’re not doing a good job, Napa Valley is a small place,” Goldberg says.
It’s in there: About 20 wineries, from cult to corporations, including Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay and Franciscan Napa Valley Merlot.
Moulds Family Vineyard, Oak Knoll
Steve Moulds always liked to grow things. But it took him a while to do it for a living.
“It’s my third career,” he says.
Or maybe it’s his fourth. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, a social worker with Spanish-speaking farm workers in Gilroy and a commercial real estate executive in Palo Alto.
“I’ve always wanted to work outside,” Moulds says, so he and his schoolteacher wife Betsy bought well-drained property on Napa’s western bench in 1988. He went back to college for what he calls a “boots on the ground” education in farming.
Today, he sells the grapes off his 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and a touch of Cabernet Franc mostly to small wineries like Behrens Family, Merus, Boyd Family and Zeitgeist. He has a waiting list to buy his grapes. But it wasn’t always this way.
“When I got my first crop in 2003, I told Mark Herold of Merus—who didn’t want to buy my grapes—that if they didn’t make it into his cuvée, I’d buy the bottles back,” he says. “When he called us in March to taste the wines he had made, I had tears in my eyes.”
Wherever his fruit is made into wine, Moulds is certain he can recognize his progeny. “I love tasting the handprint of our vineyard,” he says.
It’s in there: Behrens Family Moulds Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends from Merus, Boyd Family, Zeitgeist and Dakota Shy.
Wolleson Vineyard, Calistoga
Ask Charlie Wolleson about the worst year for his Calistoga vineyard, and his answer might surprise you. It wasn’t last year, when he lost half his crop during a wet season. Instead, he recalls a childhood vintage.
“We had a killing frost one night before the war—World War II,” he says. “And we had bad rain and frost in 1948. Or was it ’49?”
In spite of his age and experience, Wolleson, 82, lives in the present. His bench-land Cabernet Sauvignon goes into Chateau Montelena’s Napa Valley bottling, and he still does most of the farming on his 16 acres of vines that border Highway 29.
“I do the tractor work and the thinning and some of the pruning, although I can’t afford the equipment I need for spraying this size property,” he says.
Wolleson’s grandfather bought the land in the early 1900s—there’s still one-half acre of his head-pruned Zinfandel—and the vineyard has witnessed the many changes that have occurred in the valley. His father once farmed prunes, planted vines between the trees, shipped grapes east to home winemakers and sold grapes to the local cooperative.
Cabernet and Chardonnay weren’t always the preferred grapes.
“We grew field blends of Zinfandel and Carignan, lots of Petite Sirah—we called it ‘peddy sarah’—as well as Malvasia and Sauvignon Verte.”
For the past few years, he’s worked primarily with Chateau Montelena. “They’re happy with my grapes,” Wolleson says, “because I keep them clean and without mildew.”
He’s installing a modern irrigation system, but he still drives two 1950s-era tractors.
“I have a collection of even older, classic ones,” he says, noting that he once ran a repair shop. In time, Wolleson expects his daughter and son-in-law to take over the vineyard, but until then, he says that he’ll keep riding tractors.
It’s in there: Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Herb and Irene Christian
Christian Vineyards, Coombsville
“You can see us on Google maps,” Herb Christian says, eagerly giving the location of his four-acre vineyard in the Coombsville area just east of Napa city.
“You can see the vines out in front of the house,” he says. ”We have sheep out back for the grandchildren.”
Christian, who worked in quality control for the U.S. Navy, and his wife, Irene, moved to the valley from San Anselmo in 1979 to raise their children in a rural setting.
After retirement, a neighbor encouraged him to grow grapes, helping him lay out the vineyard and plant 3,000 Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 2005.
Although perhaps an accidental farmer, Christian says he works hard doing tractor work, spraying, frost protection, lab reports and overseeing picking.
When the first crop was harvested in 2008, a friend said that Sequoia Grove might be looking for grapes. Since then, he has sold everything he grows to winemaker Molly Hill.
“They tell us when they want us to harvest,” Christian says. “But they later have us up to the winery to taste from the barrel and tell us how they think the wine will develop.”
When the wine is released a couple of years later, the Christians buy a few bottles.
“We’re so proud of it,” he says.
Is Christian ever tempted to make his own wine?
“Oh, no,” he says. “It’s hard enough the grow grapes.”
It’s in there: Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon