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  • Writer's pictureSave The Family Farms

Save The Family Farms

Written by: John Henry Martin

Ken Nerlove and daughter, Elise Nerlove Rutchick at their south Napa vineyard, Elkhorn Peak. Photo by Lyda Studios.
Ken Nerlove and daughter, Elise Nerlove Rutchick at their south Napa vineyard, Elkhorn Peak. Photo by Lyda Studios.

There is a movement underway to preserve a way of life in the Napa Valley that is in danger of disappearing forever. It’s called “Save the Family Farms” and if they don’t succeed in their mission, small producers like Ken Nerlove and his daughter Elise Nerlove Rutchick at Elkhorn Peak Cellars will go extinct. Rutchick, along with a handful of other farmers in Napa, created Save the Family Farms in order to raise public awareness about their plight, and lobby the Napa County Board of Supervisors to create a micro-winery ordinance that will provide a way for small wine producers to operate legally under the county’s rules. As it stands right now, it is illegal for Rutchick and her father to host guests at Elkhorn Peak, because, according to the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance, any hospitality facility must be tied to a production facility. Nerlove and Rutchick make their wine at a custom crush facility that does not allow its clients access to hospitality, nor would they want to host guests there given the industrial nature of the facility. A solution would be for them to build a winery on their property in Jamieson Canyon. Nerlove has started the application twice, but the costs were just too burdensome. With Rutchick’s most recent application for a 1,000 gallon permit, she was advised to increase the amount permitted to allow for “growth.” But along with the increased capacity, comes the requirement of a $500,000 septic system overhaul, or $600,000 in road upgrades, not to mention the millions of dollars it costs to build the actual winery. This is simply financially unfeasible given the modest size of Elkhorn Peak’s production. “We were advised to keep growing, make more money, and come back when we can afford the investment. But we will never be able to afford an investment like this. We will never be that big, that is not our business model. We don’t want a business that big, we don’t need a business that big” Rutchick said. Fundamentally, Rutchick wants access to a direct to consumer (DTC) sales model, in which wineries bypass the distributors and sell wine directly to the consumer. This is the most profitable way of selling wine, and is the best way to control how one’s wine is presented and keep the winery’s message on brand. So, Rutchick along with Save the Family Farm’s director George O’Meara have what O’Meara has called the “De Minimus Approach.” In this approach, Rutchick would grow the grapes at her vineyard, then crush the grapes at the custom crush facility. Then the juice would be brought back to Elkhorn Peak for fermentation. In this approach, no new septic system would be needed because the fermentation part of the process is not water intensive like the crushing part. Then, once fermented, the wine would be brought back to the custom crush facility to be finished and bottled. According to O’Meara, this satisfies the winery definition ordinance with only a minimal capital investment. O’Meara said he’s gotten broad approval for this plan. Also at issue is the matter of visitation. All wineries in the County of Napa, when they are built or expanded, must conduct a traffic study to determine what impact their expansion may have on road traffic. The impact is measured in ADTs, or “average daily trips” which is equivalent to one car driving to and from a location. Every dwelling in Napa is allocated 5 ADTs per day. Whereas a larger winery could be allocated 100. Nerlove and Rutchick’s plan is for only 5, the equivalent impact being equivalent to only one residence. “This isn’t a big business operation. We’re trying to create something so that small businesses can remain small businesses in Napa” Rutchick said. Rutchick also thinks that this is a forward looking initiative with regard to the millennial consumer who is very experience oriented. She said, “what a family farm can offer is an intimate one-on-one tasting experience with me, a grape grower first and foremost. So when people come visit my farm, I want to take them into the vineyard. I want to let them touch a vine, touch a grape, show them what it’s like to grow grapes. I want to educate them, give them information, get to know them, drink wine with them.” Furthermore, Rutchick thinks the variety that will be available in the Napa Valley as a result of the micro winery ordinance will enhance a consumer’s overall experience of the valley. She said, “there is no reason that a tourist can’t come to Napa, go to a larger winery and get the incredible history, and then come to my small family farm, and see what a 1,000 case production winery looks like at a picnic table. You can’t go wrong with diversity. There’s room enough for that in Napa for everybody. Or there should be.” John Henry Martin


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