When you ask any winemaker what the key to making great wine is, they will always say great wine is made in the vineyard. You have to have quality fruit to make great wine. It is hard to argue with great vines, especially those that are managed with respect, care and intent on maintaining excellence and history. Beckstoffer Vineyards is one of the finest in pursuing perfection in the vineyard to produce ultra-premium wines from Napa Valley.
For more than 40 years Beckstoffer Vineyards, led by Andrew “Andy” Beckstoffer, has farmed historic vineyards in Napa, Mendocino and Lake County with the highest principles of quality, and a dedicated focus to sustainability and agricultural preservation. I had the incredible opportunity to visit with Andy, and son David Beckstoffer, on a recent trip to Napa Valley over lunch as their guest, tasting a selection of wines produced from their special vines.
In 1969 Virginia born Andy Beckstoffer arrived in Napa Valley on one of his early job assignments for the prestigious financial firm, Hueblein Inc., after convincing them to invest in the wine industry in California. Though the Dartmoth M.B.A. grad and recently appointed Hueblein Director of Corporate Acquisitions Strategies may have thought he was going to follow a financial career path, he was drawn to the the open canvas that Napa offered at the time, directing the company to purchase Beaulieu Vineyards and United Vintners, owners of Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony wines. Shortly after he and his family made the full time move to the region, developing Vinifera Development Corporation for Heublein, directing all aspects of vineyard farming as its President. In 1973 he established Beckstoffer Vineyards, acquiring over 1200 acres of land in Napa and Mendocino Counties from Hueblein.
Those early years of development (both in the vineyard and with workers) defined what Beckstoffer Vineyards would become. Andy has been credited with offering influential assistance during the farm workers uprising led by Cesar Chavez during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Andy knew the most important thing would always be the people, and working together was the only way to solve the critical issues affecting laborers in the region. His logical assistance quelled many of these issues between farm laborers and owners, specifically in Napa Valley.
He also was never going to settle for second rate. He had purchased his first vineyards from Heublein just as the price of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes tanked, and interest rates spiked on the loans he had taken to purchase his land. There were ways to cut corners and costs, however the dedicated farmer knew that they only way to build a respected reputation was to always do everything right.
His vineyard management has always been sustainable, with an eye for innovation, developing techniques to analyze vine health and productivity, manage water use and improve vineyard efficiency. Early implementation of drip irrigation, vine spacing and bench graft production, quite uncommon in the early 1970’s, proved that you could improve overall vine health and grape growing quality, while farming smarter.
In 1975 Andy became Founding Director and the second President of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, forging a historic agreement on grape pricing that directly tied the price of grapes to the retail bottle price. The agreement ensured that everyone, from grower to worker, would be treated fairly, beginning a new era of grape quality and land preservation. In 1976 he led the group to demand geographical and historical indicators be used to establish a wine’s appellation of origin. Though this is quite normal in appellation definition now, at the time it was controversial, but set the stage to ensuring what is in the bottle would be accurately represented on the label. This would eventually lead to the Winery Definition Ordinance in 1989, which requires that 75% of grapes used in Napa wines must be from the Napa Valley.
As the wine business in California continued to develop, the value of the Beckstoffer vineyards grew. Andy had an eye for finding quality fruit, and every time he had a little bit of extra money he would purchase additional land and vineyards. Vinifera Vineyard in Mendocino was purchased in 1974 and an additional 249 acres of Mendocino County vineyards in 1981; 44 vineyard acres in Carneros in 1978; Las Piedras Vineyard in St. Helena in 1983, the first of the Beckstoffer Heritage Vineyards dating back to 1840 when Edward Bale planted it after receiving the land as a wedding gift from General Vallejo. In 1988 purchased the second of his Heritage Vineyards, 221 acres of Rutherford vines, formerly Beaulieu Vineyard Number 3, renaming it Vineyard Georges III.
From 1992-1997 Beckstoffer Vineyards acquired five Napa Valley properties including four Heritage Vineyards: Beckstoffer Carneros Lake in Carneros, To Kalon in Oakville, Missouri-Hopper in Yountville and Dr. Crane Vineyard in Saint Helena, along with Las Amigas Vineyard in Napa.
He also began promoting designating the vineyards on the bottles. Quite uncommon at the time, Beckstoffer encouraged noting the vineyard-designated wines as they were the best expression of wines produced from a single vineyard source, highlighting the uniqueness of each vineyard’s terroir.
Today the family business, with Andy still at the helm as Chairman and CEO, with son, David Beckstoffer, now President and COO, owns over 3600 acres of land throughout Napa Valley, Lake County and Mendocino. Clean farming techniques like the use of different natural techniques for pest management and rodent control (like the use of owl boxes,) water conservation, cover crops, the use biodiesel fuel for tractors, solar power in their offices, and riverbank restoration to prevent erosion are just a few methods the Beckstoffers use to ensure their vineyards are producing premium fruit, while maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Growing up in Napa Valley David Beckstoffer thought he would never return to the then sleepy region when he left for college in 1979. However, the Stanford Grad who had received a BS and MS in Structural Engineering and a MBA from Wharton School in Philadelphia, eventually was drawn back to the Valley, seeing that it had changed from a quite farming town to a world-class wine growing region. Knowing his business knowledge and insight, including a decade of working with corporate business negotiations, along with strong family ties, were the basis for joining the company in 1997, helping Beckstoffer Vineyards evolve in a rapidly expanding time.
While producing his own wine was never the goal for Vintner Andy Beckstoffer, a few years ago David decided to jump in to this arena with both feet. Though the President of Beckstoffer Vineyards uses his family fruit for his emerging premium wine brand, KATA, he doesn’t get any kind of preferential treatment or family discount.
As Andy noted with a sly grin, David is just like everyone else in that realm, the basis for who they sell their fruit to never changes. To be considered you can’t just be the highest bidder, the winery has to have a proven winemaker, as these grapes do have a very strong reputation to maintain, and you have to have passion. The first question Andy asked me when we met was where did I get my passion for wine and the grape? To be in this business you have to have a true love for it, especially on the agricultural side as it is not a glamorous business. But the result is simply, sublimely delicious.
Lucky for David, he well exceeds the requirements. Through the years of both living and working in Napa Valley he has developed a deep connection to the land with an intuitive ability to read a vineyard’s potential. In 2010 the family purchased a portion of the Bourn Vineyard in St. Helena, with history dating back to 1872. Developed by William Bowers Bourn II, considered the last “Bonanza King of the California Gold Rush” because of his ownership of the finest gold mine in California, Empire Mine. The meticulously managed vineyards, filled with old vine, head-trained Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon rest on a sloping St. Helena bench, just below the Mayacamus Mountain range, filled with alluvial soils ideal for premium quality Cabernet Sauvignon and surprisingly approachable Petit Sirah. David is also smart enough to know his strength is in the vines, partnering with Bordeaux born winemaker Benoit Touquette.
Though he wanted to be a fighter pilot in the French army, Benoit eventually found his way to wine, studying at the University of Bordeaux to earn his MS in Chemistry and Enology and working at Chateaus throughout the region, and under the mentorship of Winemaker Michel Rolland. When he arrived in Napa he worked under Andy Erickson, and eventually began his own consulting firm, working with Realm, Hartwell and his own Fait Main Wine, French for “Hand Made.” The name speaks to his winemaking philosophy that is often governed by a series of unbending choices.
When the duo came together to create KATA the goal was to produce wine of distinction and acclaim, celebrating the fruit from this historic place, respecting the traditions held there, while utilizing modern techniques. The name KATA has a few meanings of significance. First for David, a martial arts fan, the term Kata refers to a series of choreographed movements one does between graduating to the next level of difficulty (between belts,) and the broad Japanese concept referring to focus, repetition and experience where difficult techniques or practices can become more like second nature. Additionally, tracing back the local linguistics of the Native Americans of the Wappo Tribe, who lived in the Napa Valley, KATA means five, representing the five vineyard blocks in the tiny Bourn Vineyard (about 13 acres total,) tying directly back to David’s dedication to the land and knowledge of the vines. KATA was started in 2011 with just 150 cases
The 2013 release has about 500, an ideal size for the brand. Filled with wild flowers, blackberry, licorice and spice the layered blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Sirah, from 10 rows of vines dating back over 60 years, is fresh, elegant and well integrated, while maintaining a robust, masculine palate. With very small production (just 20 barrels produced,) and an artisan touch, KATA 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon shows the quality of the vineyard while showcasing the ideal vintage. Available via allocation through their website.
Also while in Napa I had a chance to visit with winemaker Jean Hoefliger, winemaker for Alpha Omega, however we didn’t try these highly rated wines, instead we tasted from his JH Portfolio a relatively new wine for the Swiss born winemaker who has made Napa home for the past decade and a half, THE DEBATE.
THE DEBATE was started in 2013 when Hoefliger joined Rob McKay to create a wine that would celebrate what both loved to do, drink wine over great food while celebrating the art of conversation, even if you have different viewpoints. THE DEBATE includes three different looks at Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, from three of the most famous vineyards in Napa Valley including Beckstoffer Missouri-Hopper, Beckstoffer To Kalon, and Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyards.
With exactly the same winemaking techniques, and Beckstoffer farming techniques, each of these wines highlight the diversity of Napa Valley’s terroir. Jean’s bigger than life approach and passion are also felt as the powerful, expressive wines leap from the glass with layers of juicy black fruit, espresso and crushed stone.
From St. Helena, the Beckstoffers purchased the Dr. Crane Vineyard in 1997 with history dating back to the 1850’s. In the 1920’s this site was the Chinatown of St. Helena, with workers living here building the railroad and homes of the region. In 1998 the Beckstoffers replanted the vineyard with multiple clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, ideal for its gravelly loam filled soils. The Debate 2012 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is lively, fresh and nicely balanced with approachable tannin structure, even in such a complex, intense wine with a velvety smooth palate.
Each bottle of THE DEBATE is wrapped in a special newspaper with headlines from the vintage year, helping spur discussions around a great bottle of wine. Jean also wanted to keep the price point approachable, which in Napa can be difficult as high quality Cabernet Sauvignon often comes at a high price. However, each of these wines, available through allocation for $480 for the three pack. Impressive for wines that have received ratings of 95, 96 and 100 from Robert Parker.
Winemaker Paul Hobbs has long been a fan of To Kalon fruit, having become familiar with the vineyard while working for Robert Mondavi Winery in the 1970’s. Today he works with the Beckstoffers to create his Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that consistently rates in the high 90’s. Though these are often wines that will benefit from aging, Hobbs masterfully crafts earthy, crushed stone and dried flower filled wines with power and character. The juicy 2012 vintage is filled with blackberry, blueberry, toasted almond, graphite and violets. Decant for an hour or two before enjoying now, or age for upwards of 15-20 years. $460, available at Pogo’s or through allocation via their website.
From Oakville vines, Cliff Lede produces a special Cabernet from fruit grown by the Beckstoffers at their Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard. Well draining, gravelly loam soils with high mineral content, produce ripe fruit, thanks to the hot summer Napa days, but acidity is kept in tact due to cooling breezes, dropping temperatures at night. The wine is textured and concentrated, with blackberry, mocha, crushed stone and graphite notes. Strong tannins are present throughout, showing this wine will age nicely for 10-15 years. $165, available via their website. From their Stags Leap Vineyards the winery also produces their Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the best blocks of their hillside Poetry Vineyard and Twin Peaks Vineyard surrounding the winery. Dark chocolate, black cherry, tobacco and mineral notes. $75, available at Pogo’s.
Carter Cellars Beckstoffer To Kalon “The O.G” Cabernet Sauvignon is filled with ripe black fruit, tobacco and cigar box notes. A big wine from the Oakville Vineyard, and a favorite of critic Robert Parker, as he gave the 2013 wine 100 points. Though there is intensity, there is also finesse, as the vineyard delivers balance with complexity and structure. I had a chance to taste the 2010, which has softened with aging, nicely integrating the tannin structure, ending with a long, inviting finish. $400, available here or via their winery through allocation.
The Missouri-Hopper Vineyard was originally a part of the land owned by George C. Yount, from whom the town of Yountville takes its name, and just north of the town’s boarders in the Oakville AVA. In 1877 Charles Hopper purchased the land and gave it to his daughter, Missouri, who planted it to wine grapes, along with prunes and walnuts. The Beckstoffers purchased the Heritage Vineyard in 1996 . Of the owners who make wine from Missouri-Hopper Bure Family Wines has that passion the Beckstoffers seek out in their wine partners. Started by husband wife team, Valeri Bure and Candace Cameron Bure, along with friend and partner, Josh Peeples. Val Bure is a former professional player for the Montreal Canadians and two time Olympian in hockey. While playing in Canada he learned and developed his love of wine, and passion for the craftsmanship of it. Their tiny production (about 150 cases) Bure Family “Duration” Beckstoffer Missouri-Hopper Cabernet Sauvignon shows the power and richness of the variety with layers of blackberry, black currant, lilac and spice. Available via their website through allocation.