Napa Valley Heritage: Talking Tradition + Terroir with David Beckstoffer

With over 50 fine wines designated as originating entirely from Beckstoffer Heritage Vineyards – the Beckstoffer family has been at the forefront of fine wine production in Napa since they bought up and nurtured some of Napa’s finest terroir from the early 1970s onwards. Heritage vineyard sites such as To Kalon which Beckstoffer bought from Beaulieu Vineyards in 1993 is synonymous with some of the finest wines ever made in Napa and has garnered more 100 points wines made on one site than any other vineyard in Napa, possibly the world. Names such as Schrader, Paul Hobbs, Tor Kenward Family Wines, Alpha Omega, and Morlet Family Vineyards have all bottled vineyard-designated wines from Beckstoffer To Kalon. Its reputation makes its grapes some of the most expensive in the world. We caught up with David Beckstoffer to discuss the heritage vineyards as well as his new Kata Wine project.

 

  1. What was it like growing up in Napa Valley in the 70s compared to now?

I lived in Napa in the 70’s when I was in high school. At that time it was nothing like it is now. The wine business here was dominated by a handful of large players like Mondavi and Inglenook and was not recognised as “world class”.  Tourism was not a big thing and it was much more a small farming community than an international tourist destination.

 

  1. When did you feel that Napa Valley really had the potential to produce world class wines… When do you feel was the moment the world realised this too?

Everyone points to the Paris Tasting in ’76 as the turning point when Napa was officially recognised but at that time, it was actually not a huge event.  Only later was it shown to be as important as it is seen today. I think Napa wineries were making world class wines before ’76 but due to the overwhelming feeling that only French wines were the best, it took a while before Napa and other new world regions became recognised.

 

  1. Who and what was your fathers inspiration when starting up in Napa?

My father was originally a businessman, not a wine guy. He originally became involved in Napa vineyards because the company he worked for (Heublein in Hartford Connecticut) has some vineyard holdings that he managed.  He got involved because he believed he could turn around some non-performing assets.  (There’s a lot more history on our website www.beckstoffervineyards.com).  Obviously a lot has changed since then.

 

  1. You mention on your website the agreement to directly connect grape pricing with retail pricing of wine as instrumental in regards to land preservation, can you explain why?

By tying the price of grapes to the price of wine, growers are able to participate in the success and profits that have grown steadily in the wine business in California.  Traditionally, grapes were sold as a commodity and many growers of excellent fruit were having trouble surviving.  By rewarding growers as well as wineries, the vineyard business became much more profitable and sustainable. This meant that vineyards could become the highest and best use of the land here and prevented the mass redevelopment of world class vineyards into commercial, tourism, or other uses, thereby preserving what we had built.

 

  1. In total you own and manage 3600 hectares, what percentage of that relates to the Heritage sites?

Our vineyard holdings are in 3 counties – Napa, Mendocino, and Lake counties.  All of our Heritage vineyards are in Napa.  Of the roughly 1000 acres we have in Napa, about 250 acres (or 25%) are Heritage sites.

 

  1. What defines a heritage vineyard?

Our vineyards that produce the highest quality fruit along with an historic pedigree are categorised as “Heritage” vineyards.

 

  1. How do you identify who to sell to? Surely demand outstrips supply in regard to the Heritage vineyards?

We look for wineries and winemakers that have a reputation for making excellent wines as well as  the ability to properly promote, market and sell their wines.  Additionally, we like to work with winemakers that share our viticultural approach and  have an appreciation for our farming experience and expertise.

 

  1. What are your thoughts of Gallo investing so heavily in the region?

We welcome Gallo’s increased presence here.  We respect their long history of success and  obviously hope we can sell them more grapes! Our principal concern with Gallo and other Napa wineries is that they respect and promote Napa grapes and vineyards on the same level as the wines they produce.

 

  1. What are your favourite Heritage vineyards and why?

That’s like asking who my favourite child is! All of our Heritage vineyards have unique characteristics that not only set them apart from other regions but also distinguish them from each other.  I think some vineyards get more attention from the press for various reasons but I believe all of our Heritage vineyards demonstrate the best there is here in Napa.  We leave it to the winemakers to bring out that potential in the wines.

 

  1. What have been the biggest most recent changes in terms of viticulture over the last few years?

Every year there are advances in technology and new problems to address in the vineyards which tend to push innovation and experimentation.  Lately, improving  technologies in the areas of remote monitoring, irrigation automation, mechanical farming and harvesting and robotics have changed and improved the way we do things.

 

  1. What was the inspiration for starting Kata?

I started Kata in 2011 after we had purchased the Bourn vineyard, our most recent Heritage Vineyard, in 2010.  I saw the potential for this site to make outstanding Cabernet and it was the right time for me to take on the project.  I was a “garagist” for many years and made my own backyard wine but this was an opportunity to do something truly special on a larger scale.

 

  1. Why did it take you this long before you decided to start making your own wine?

Mostly timing reasons.  The right opportunity wasn’t there and frankly, my job as President of Beckstoffer Vineyards took up most of my time.  When I saw the potential at Bourn, I decided that this was the opportunity that I had been waiting for.

 

  1. What is so special about Kata?

Kata is special primarily because of the Beckstoffer Bourn Vineyard and the unique quality of the grapes grown there. The soils and climate at Bourn are ideal.  I remember when we were investigating the vineyard before we bought it and as we dug in the root zone we realised that the roots went down well beyond 8 feet.  This is quite unusual and told us that the drainage here and the nutrients in the soils were exceptional and perfect for Cabernet.  The vineyard also contained very old Petite Sirah vines which were planted in the 1950’s – some of the oldest Petite Sirah in Napa. We found that combining a little of the Petite Sirah with the Cabernet produced a wonderful wine. The round, soft, aromatic qualities of the Petite Sirah interact beautifully with the intense, highly-structured Cabernet profile giving the wine layers of complex flavors and textures.  Benoit Touquette, the winemaker, is a master of creating the perfect blend that brings out the nuances of both varieties (usually about 10-20% Petite Sirah in most years).

 

Watch out for our latest Kata release coming out in the next few weeks…