The Past and Future of Napa Land

Beckstoffer and Harlan address growers' organization

by Jim Gordon
St. Helena, Calif. -- Two prominent figures in Napa Valley winemaking reflected on the quality and value of the valley's vineyards for members of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers last Friday. One looked back at the extraordinary political efforts of 40 years that enabled the valley to have the highest-priced vineyard land in the country, and another looked forward at what Napa can do to stay on top.

Andy Beckstoffer, founder of Beckstoffer Vineyards and a founder of the growers' organization in 1975, was Mr. Past, and William Harlan, founder of Harlan Estate, Bond Winery and The Napa Valley Reserve wine estate, and managing owner of Meadowood Resort, was Mr. Future.

Beckstoffer reflected that the work of the past had been to save the valley from the threat of housing development, and to encourage vineyards instead. "We in this century will be required to preserve ag lands in Napa Valley," he said. "All of our work to maximize grape and wine quality will only be valuable if it serves to protect our land."

Beckstoffer, whose company owns 1,000 acres in Napa Valley and 2,000 elsewhere, contrasted the valley's agriculture economy in 1968, the year that the county's agricultural preserve of nearly 26,000 acres was put into place via new zoning regulations, with the situation today. Here are statistical highlights from research he did for the presentation:

Napa Ag Then and Now 1968 2006
Acres of vineyard 11,900 42,188
Tons of grapes harvested 38,276 152,776
Price per ton, Cabernet Sauvignon $300 $3,960
Vineyard land value per acre $2,000-4,000 $150,000-350,000*
Value of grapes $6 million $469 million
Value of animal production $13 million $4 million
Number of brick & mortar wineries 15 400
* Note that some vineyard land still sells for $75,000 or less.

More Napa Gamay was grown in 1968 than Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer observed, noting that the valley was growing "poor grapes" that sold at such low prices that the valley was being targeted for other uses that would give farm property owners a better return on their land. But vineyard and agriculture preservation advocates united to back an ordinance that set a 20-acre minimum parcel size in the valley floor. Some 13 other legal or legislative milestones later, including one that set a 40-acre minimum for land largely in the hillsides of the county, the agricultural preserve has survived.

Beckstoffer credited three groups with enabling this unusual effort to save land for agriculture: growers and vintners, county and city governments, and the people of the cities in Napa County who voted for the protective, enabling rulemaking. "It's a miracle," he said. "Forty years ago the Ag Preserve was a controversial county zoning ordinance. Today, agricultural preservation is the will of the people."

William Harlan, who was a real estate developer himself before becoming a vintner, acknowledged that Napa County's zoning has protected the real estate values. He said that Napa Valley, with no official vineyard land classification like those for wine appellations in Europe, needs to preserve its values now through the highest quality grapes and wine possible, and through marketing.

"We are not going to be the best forever if we don't take the risks needed to grow the best grapes and make the best wine," Harlan said. Napa also needs to take risks to build the Napa Valley brand worldwide, he said. "We are perceived in the United States as the best, but not in the rest of the world." He said that in export markets, Napa is considered simply one of the many New World regions. "We need to someday be perceived as, (being) as good or better than Burgundy or Champagne."

Harlan urged making "ambassadors" out of the valley's stakeholders, including distributors and Napa visitors. He said that visitors to the valley need to be the right ones, the ones who can afford to buy Napa Valley wines. "It's not just the grapes and the wine they see here; but it's the experience they have here."

Beckstoffer and Harlan were two of 11 speakers in the Napa Valley Grapegrowers seminar, Current Topics for Vineyard Owners, held at Meadowood Resort. For more information, visit napagrowers.org.
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