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A Small Napa Family Farmer’s Perspective

Elise mowing the family's Pinot Noir vineyard, May 2020.
Elise mowing the family's Pinot Noir vineyard, May 2020.

As a second-generation Napa Valley native, I’ve always heard the name “Andy Beckstoffer.” He’s is a cultural icon in Napa Valley, known broadly for his pioneering role in Napa Valley’s evolution into a world-class wine region. But it wasn’t until I became involved in the family’s grape growing business that I would come to understand there are 3 sides to every story, especially with Andy Beckstoffer. I recently read The Grapelord of Napa Faces a Threat Worse Than Plague published on May 9, 2020 and felt compelled to offer another perspective of Napa Valley.

The article portrayed Mr. Beckstoffer sitting in his ivory tower discussing the mystery “milleniums” over veggie burgers. I couldn’t help but to murmur the catchphrase “ok boomer” to myself when Mr. Beckstoffer suggested my generation, the millennials, should want to buy luxury bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon simply because it’s “plant-based.”

The question that keeps Mr. Beckstoffer up at night is: why aren’t millennials buying Napa Valley’s luxury Cabernet? The irony is, Andy Beckstoffer has been systematically building a “luxury experience” that the millennial consumer is not seeking. Millennials want a unique, adventurous and socially connected experience. Rob McMillan, author of the Silicon Valley Bank’s “State of the U.S. Wine Industry” analysis says: “Millennials are spending the most per bottle when they do buy wine,” but suggests there are very few wine country experiences designed for the millennial consumer: “We sell hospitality and gracious living, with a nod to the lifestyles of the rich and famous in many cases. That worked for the boomers, but that message at best is wasted on millennials and at worst is turning them off.”

There was once a time when a visit to Napa Valley included a walk through the vineyard with a farmer. I’ve heard Chuck Wagner, founder of Caymus, tell the story of his father selling bottles of Caymus Cabernet out of the back of the vineyard pickup truck. Millennials crave this type of immersive Napa experience – it’s genuine and authentic, it’s real agriculture and yes, it’s instagrammable!

The NY Times article cited Andy Beckstoffer’s strategy to elevate the Napa brand, saying “wine would only reach its potential if it was strategically elevated into a luxury product — scarce, expensive, vigilantly branded — even if that meant leaving behind an Arcadian era centered on small family farms and affordability.” Napa Valley has been very successful, but we are losing small family farms in the name of premiumization; nearly 200 small, family-owned vineyards have closed or been sold over the past 5 years. And when the small, family farm is gone forever, the soul of Napa Valley will be gone too.

Will a millennial purchase a luxury bottle of Cabernet? Give them the opportunity to talk at the kitchen table with the grape grower and winemaker, allow them to ask questions about grape growing and winemaking with the people who actually do it. Get them acquainted with the vineyard, in the vineyard. This experience will attract and retain a new generation of wine enthusiasts to Napa Valley.

Now that we’re in a COVID-19 world, the next step in the evolution in Napa Valley is even more critical than before. According to Rob McMillan: “If we’re ever going to build a bridge to the new normal and include the millennials along with new revenue sources, it will be the small, family farms & vineyards that do it.”

Napa can (and should) be a place where $10M estates with marble pillars can co-exist with a small, family farm who wants to offer intimate wine tastings at a picnic table in the vineyards. Diverse tasting experiences will attract the millennial consumer.

I ask that Napa County leadership consider the small, family farmer as a valuable piece of Napa County’s short and long-term economic recovery strategy. Start with legislation that will provide the opportunity for small family farms and vineyards to survive. Small, family farms, with their inherent vintage Napa culture and charm, have the power to attract and retain the millennial consumers to Napa Valley.

Elise Nerlove Rutchick

Second Generation, Napa Valley Small Family Farmer

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This article was originally published in Wine Searcher on Monday, 18-Sep-2023. Link to the original article here. The long-protected Napa wine industry faces a chilly new political atmosphere. W. Blak


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