Gentry catches up with the man who is often called the godfather of Cabernet Sauvignon to discuss wine, terroir, and community.
The March 23, 2020, headlines announced that Beckstoffer Vineyards would be jumping into the fight against COVID-19 with immediate assistance for at-risk individuals and families in the form of 100 checks of $300 (totaling approximately $33,000) for Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties.
Andy Beckstoffer was quick to relate, “We are fortunate that we haven’t laid off any staff as grape growing has been deemed an ‘essential business.’ However, with restaurant closures and reduced tourism, we recognize that many in the hospitality industry have been suddenly laid off, meaning that many of the already-lowest wage earners have now lost their income completely. Beckstoffer Vineyards has grown grapes in these three counties for the past 50 years, and we care about the people who live and work here.”
This wasn’t the first time Beckstoffer jumped into the fray to help the community he so loves and is passionate about calling home. In 2015 he pledged $50,000 to the #LakeCountyRising fundraising campaign following the devastating Valley Fire. That donation and those of other individuals and private companies eventually raised more than $1,000,000 for #LakeCountyRising.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
It’s hard to believe that Beckstoffer was once considered a “second-class citizen.” Today, he is one of Napa’s most influential players. The third-largest vineyard owner in Napa Valley, his company, Beckstoffer Vineyards, boasts an incredible portfolio of land, one that includes six heritage vineyards like the famed To Kalon and Dr. Crane vineyards. But there is so much more to Beckstoffer than land ownership. He changed the viticulture game and helped shape the valley’s wine industry. He shattered the class system that relegated growers and farmers to the shadows. He completely restructured the business of buying and selling grapes and championed the beauty of terroir. Beckstoffer has essentially been a part of every pivotal moment in the valley’s modern history.
When Beckstoffer arrived in Napa in the late 1960s, it was on behalf of the Connecticut-based beverage company Hublein. A southern boy with an MBA and a soft drawl, he had been tasked with breaking the company into the California wine industry.
“My first job was to get people to invest in Cabernet Sauvignon and start growing the grapes,” Beckstoffer says. He spent that first year traveling throughout California, convincing investors and farmers alike that Cabernet Sauvignon was the future of wine. (In 2019, Cabernet Sauvignon made up 51% of Napa Valley’s vineyard acreage and reigned as the most profitable grape.) Next, Beckstoffer formed a Hublein subsidiary farming company, Vinifera Development Corporation.
But in 1972, Hublein wanted out of the farming game. “They didn’t want to deal with Cesar Chavez,” Beckstoffer says. Unlike his employer, Beckstoffer wanted to stay. He liked working with farmers over salespeople, and he felt Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association represented an opportunity, not an obstacle.
“A lot of farming companies, they’d treat their farmers like an asset—same as they would a tractor,” he explains. “For us, our farmers weren’t an asset. They were our team. And if our team wanted to work with Chavez, then ok.” So he pitched an idea to Hublein: sell Vinifera to him. Hublein agreed, and Beckstoffer Vineyards was born.
UNDERSTANDING THE LAND
Now a business owner, there were a few issues in the industry for Beckstoffer to tackle. First, the winemaker, not the grape, was king. Second, growers were not properly compensated.
To champion the grape, Beckstoffer turned to the Burgundian way of winemaking, which focuses on terroir. But this was the ’80s, and the Bordeaux model of blending was in fashion. “The winemakers were all trying to satisfy the same consumer taste,” Beckstoffer explains. As a result, Napa Valley Cabernets developed a reputation as being “vanilla or chocolate.” Beckstoffer believed terroir, capturing the unique characteristics of individual vineyards, was the way out.
“It really wasn’t successful right away,” Beckstoffer recalls. “They said the wines would be one dimensional.” But then Phylexxora—the vineyard-decimating bug—attacked the valley. To survive, the Beckstoffer team gave their farming techniques a complete overhaul. The result was a “superior grape that showcased the superior vineyards—the terroir,” he says.
And the winemakers took notice. Beckstoffer explains what ultimately won the winemakers over: planting different clones of cabernet in the same vineyard, thus negating the “one-dimensional” concerns. “A winemaker would say, I want 40% of Clone 1 and 30% of Clone 2 and 30% Clone 3. The next guy would want 60% of Clone 2. So they could add their own personality and complexity to the wines. That allowed us to go to the Burgundian way, to show off the vineyards without them being one dimensional,” he recalls.
To strengthen his and his fellow growers’ voices, Beckstoffer helped found the Napa Valley Growers Association and upended his selling structure.
“We weren’t getting paid for our product,” he says bluntly. “We needed a way to price the product that represented the quality, not just the quantity.” Using industry figures, Beckstoffer’s new pricing meant the winemaker would be charged 100 times the bottle price. It also meant the grower could negotiate his price. Additionally, Beckstoffer required winemakers to commit to single-vineyard wines and vineyard designate on the labels. Collectively it made Beckstoffer, at least temporarily, an unpopular figure in Napa, but he shrugs it off. “They never would have done it if they didn’t know it was worth it.”
PROTECTING THE FUTURE
Since those early years, Beckstoffer has added additional causes to his charge: land and Cabernet Sauvignon preservationist.
Serving on a number of land preservation committees, Beckstoffer admits that sometimes, “… it feels like we’re losing the fight.” But he does have hope. “We [the wine industry] have taken this agricultural town and made it a national treasure … it’s a miracle we haven’t turned totally to resorts and hotels.”
While Beckstoffer has protected his vineyards from ever being developed, there is also the matter of how climate change is impacting the grapes. Some in the industry are calling for a shift to other varietals, but not Beckstoffer. Beckstoffer Vineyards has partnered with UC Davis to investigate how to protect Cabernet Sauvignon in an ever-changing environment. The project began August of 2019, and UC Davis is calling it “the mother of all trials.”
It’s a long-term project, one that won’t have results for years to come. But Beckstoffer’s not worried. “We aren’t the only ones tackling the issue,” he says. “Lots of people are working on climate change quietly. What we learn, we’ll be able to share with them just as they’ll be able to share with us what they learn.” While Beckstoffer claims he plans to “exit center stage” one day, it seems like the valley gets to keep its leading man for now.