Interview: Expats of Napa & Sonoma

The sale of Napa’s Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak to Gallo raised more than a few eyebrows in April of 2017. The 1,300-acre estate and its 600 acres of vines sold for a staggering $180 million, with neither winery nor brand included in the deal. The transaction was significant on several levels, not the least of which the amount of high quality fruit it effectively pulled off the market. For young or less well-funded residents, it was also a pointed reminder of the level of resources required to purchase land in Napa Valley these days.

Napa Valley real estate is pricey. Vineyards and wineries regularly sell for astonishing sums due to a combination of factors. A major contribution is that, at around 45,000 acres under vine, the region is considered “planted out.” Anyone hoping to own a vineyard is more or less forced to purchase an already developed site, which can increase the buy-in, depending on the ambitions of the previous owner. The minimum parcel sizes mandated by the Agricultural Preserve (40 acres on the valley floor, 160 acres in the hillsides) are another expensive impediment. In Sonoma, though there is admittedly more room for growth as well as fewer restrictions on development, prices are significant and rising, especially in more established sub-AVAs. None of this is news. The sad truth is that buying land in Napa and Sonoma has been largely the business of millionaires, billionaires, and corporations for a while now.

This top-heavy real estate is driving a small but growing number of Napa and Sonoma’s best young talents into California’s further reaches. The establishment’s loss is the fringe’s gain, as in exchange for (relatively) affordable vineyard land, these winemakers have brought considerable expertise to their adopted regions, and often a fair amount of critical attention as well. To shed some light on the complexities of becoming a vineyard owner in contemporary California, I interviewed four winemakers who have settled in five distinct regions—Matt Naumann, General Manager of Hudson Wines; Morgan Twain-Peterson, MW, of Bedrock Wine Company and Under the Wire; Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope; and  of Turley Wine Cellars and Sandlands.

Clockwise from top left: Tegan Passalacqua, Matthew Rorick, Morgan Twain-Peterson (at left) with partner Chris Cottrell, Matt Naumann

Kelli White: Tell me about the property you purchased.

Matt Naumann: In the spring of 2016, I purchased a 40-acre ranch roughly 20 minutes south of Placerville near the town of Somerset, in the Sierra Foothills. It sits at 2,100 feet on a ridgeline directly above the north fork of the Cosumnes River. I tore out the existing 6 acres and plan to plant 16 total acres in the spring of 2018. I have been using this year to gain a better understanding of the site, source the proper planting materials, and work on the property’s infrastructure.

There’s a small, 1,000-square-foot winery on the site that carries the essentials I need for my small production, and the plan [is] to expand the production capacity of the winery as the vineyard is established.

Morgan Twain-Peterson: Our first purchase was eight acres of own-rooted Zinfandel planted in the 1910s in the Mokelumne River AVA in Lodi—just vines in really poor shape. We knew the potential quality of the area, as we bought fruit from our friend Tegan Passalacqua’s Kirschenmann Vineyard, located about 20 feet away.

The second purchase was earlier this year when, after several years of friendly negotiations, we bought Evangelho Vineyard in Contra Costa County. For me, this is a jewel of California—incredibly healthy, own-rooted Zinfandel, Carignan, and Mataro planted in the 1890s on deep banks of beach sand along the Sacramento River Delta. It has 36 acres under vine and a few small structures on it.

Evangelho Vineyard in Contra Costa County

Matthew Rorick: I purchased the property in August of 2013. The vineyard is planted to 70 acres of vines and located just outside the town of Murphys, in Calaveras County in the Sierra Foothills. There are roughly 13 acres of own-rooted Wente Chardonnay in the vineyard, which were planted from 1974 to 1976; most of the rest of the vines were planted between 2000 and 2005 and include Chenin Blanc, Mataro, Grenache, Picpoul, Trousseau, Mondeuse, Verdelho, Albariño, Zinfandel, Muscat, Vermentino, and Barbera, among others. There are two residences and a winery on the grounds.

Tegan Passalacqua: I purchased [the Kirschenmann Vineyard] from the granddaughter of the person who planted it; that was the summer of 2012. It is a 20-acre plot with 19 acres of vines and an old trailer, located on the east side of the Mokelumne River in Lodi, about a mile down the road from no place. Fifteen acres of the vineyard were planted in 1915, primarily to Zinfandel with some Carignan, Mondeuse Noir, and Cinsault. The other four acres were originally English walnuts, but in 1991, they planted Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio. I kept the Zinfandel, grafted two acres of the Pinot Grigio over to Chenin Blanc, and ripped out three-quarters of an acre that I am replanting to rootstock.

KW: How did you find your vineyard, and what made you decide to buy it?

MN: The site found me rather than the other way around. Early on in my career, I spent several years farming Ehren Jordan’s ranch on the Sonoma Coast. That was my first agricultural experience, and I became absolutely enamored with the thrill of the connection to the land. My career progressed at Failla, which ultimately pulled me away from day-to-day farming operations, but it cemented my desire to have a ranch of my own.

I had been searching for opportunities in the Sierra Foothills, and in 2016, my aunt, a real estate agent in the Sacramento area, led me to this property. She had mentioned that a former client of hers was selling a winery and vineyard in El Dorado County. I laughed off the concept of purchasing a vineyard with a winery as it seemed entirely out of my league.

The vineyard had been poorly farmed and neglected to some degree, but the soils, slope, and isolated nature of the site [were] everything I was looking for. The previous owners had invested heavily in the infrastructure, so in many ways it was turn-key, with exception of the actual planting that I decided to tear out.

MTP: We found the vineyard in Lodi, which we have named Katusha’s Vineyard as it had no name, when we saw a "for sale" sign on it. A walnut grower was about to purchase it for the land and was going to rip out the vines, which naturally pissed Chris [Cottrell] and [me] off, knowing the potential quality. We made a couple of calls and had an all-cash offer in and accepted in a few days.

Evangelho Vineyard we had worked with since 2011 and had become the largest buyer of fruit, so it was a natural transition. However, we also wanted to buy it [because] almost every vineyard in the area is for sale right now, in the hopes a developer will come in. This was a rare vineyard we could afford and protect from the continued eastward Bay Area sprawl.

MR: I came across my vineyard while looking at vineyards for sale in the Sierra Foothills. I had narrowed my search to about six potential sites in Amador and El Dorado when I came across this one. I had not previously looked at vineyards in Calaveras County and thought it might be interesting to check it out, if for nothing more than general reference. The soil on the site was the deciding factor for me: limestone, with schist topsoil, at 2,000 feet.

TP: In 2004, I was introduced to this area—there are no less than 12 old-vine vineyards in close proximity. In 2010, Turley started buying Zinfandel from the neighbors. I was overseeing the farming and the then-owner of my vineyard admired the work. Her name was Holly Laske, a Kirschenmann. She and her brother had owned the vineyard, but he had died of cancer in 2004.

I floated the idea of buying her vineyard, and we set up a meeting. I did my math and presented my number, but it was too low for her. The next morning, I was driving to work, and my phone rang. It was her. She said to me, “When I drove by the vineyard last night, I just suddenly knew that my grandfather, father, and brother would have wanted you to have it, so if the offer still stands, it’s yours.” I fought back tears when I heard that.

KW: What are the positives and negatives of owning a vineyard?

MN: The most compelling upside is having the freedom to control your source. That means planting what you’d like to plant and farming based on your own set of convictions.

I guess the biggest downside of owning a vineyard could be best compared to the most challenging parts of being a parent. There’s never a moment it’s not on my mind.

MTP: Having complete control over farming decisions is enormously challenging and rewarding, most of the time. In a place like Lodi, where there tends to be a “mindset” of how to farm (very clean, lots of tillage, etc.), we can implement farming that, I think, is better suited to the place. The most obvious negative is that you assume all the risk of farming an agricultural product.

MR: Top of the list of positives is the ability to work the vines oneself—to come to know them and the site thoroughly, and to develop an understanding of the site and a connection to it that becomes much deeper, in my experience, than with purchased fruit. Negatives might include the increased workload [that] comes along with managing a vineyard, and the risk that a grower faces every year with a vineyard's vulnerability to the vagaries of Mother Nature.

Rorick's property in the Sierra Foothills

TP: The biggest negative is finances. During the drought, I lost money every year—significant money. The only way I have been able to make it work is by putting any profits from Sandlands into the vineyard. The first vintage, 2012, was a larger vintage: 3.5 tons per acre. In 2013, I lost a couple grand. Then, in 2014, I lost $45,000.

The positive is that it gives me a better perspective. Not that I was some punk winemaker before, but it changed the way I talk to farmers. Farmers have to be very thoughtful in how they manage their finances, so winemakers have to be sensitive in their demands. I was appreciative before, but now I really understand that farming is a gamble.

I love owning a vineyard. I get to bring my two little boys out there all the time. Owning and farming a piece of land is priceless. There's a legitimate comparison to having kids, the pride you feel on harvest days.

KW: Has owning your own vineyard affected the way you make wine?

MN: While I have yet to produce fruit from my site, speaking from [other] experience, it absolutely makes you a better winemaker. That begins with the most important decision in the process: the pick date. In my opinion, the most interesting wines are made by winemakers that are farmers first.

MTP: I think it has only reinforced our belief that healthy soils make for healthy grapevines, which make for healthy, vibrant wines. We have never been particularly late pickers, but farming your own vineyard certainly makes watching fruit dehydrate on the vine that much more painful.

MR: I believe it has, if for no other reason than [that] cultivating a deeper understanding of the vineyard and the fruit it produces has caused me to approach the fermentation of particular blocks in ways that I may not have previously considered.

TP: No, not really.

KW: Do you believe you need to grow the grapes yourself to make the best wine possible?

MN: The connection with the site is paramount, but that can come in many forms.

MTP: Not necessarily, but it is very helpful. The reality is that some of our best vineyards are not farmed by us (Pagani Ranch, Hudson Vineyard, Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, etc.), which can be an advantage because we get to work with really thoughtful people that can better the scope of our own farming.

MR: I don't believe that this is absolutely necessary. I do believe, though, that the wines I make from grapes I've grown myself become a more focused expression of my vision for the vineyard. The wines that I make from purchased fruit I would liken to a collaborative effort between the grower and myself, and those wines therefore reflect a combined vision and effort. So, neither path is better than the other; they are simply different expressions.

TP: I don't like using the word “best.” But there's something deeper and more rewarding [about] making wines from grapes that you grow. I don't really know how to phrase it perfectly; it's just kind of a more complete cycle.

KW: What were the first changes you made to your vineyard? What changes do you still hope to make?

MN: Tearing out the vineyard was quite a big change. My plan is to farm the site in its entirety by myself. While the original planting was vertically trellised, my planting will be head trained with a density that’s inspired [by] many of the old-vine vineyards and lends itself to long-term dry farming. Spacing will be 10 by 10, or 480 vines per acre. I’ll be able to prune the entire site by myself in three to four days. There are not many vineyards in the United States that have been pruned by one single individual, and it’s my intention to be intimately involved with every vine at my site.

There’s a tremendous amount of sunlight in the foothills, and a shaded canopy will help slow down [ripening]. The site will also be dry-farmed, with a large percentage of own-rooted vines. That may sound crazy, but the soils are granitic sand, not the most hospitable environment for phylloxera. I’m not saying my way is the only way, but it’s the most practical for my purposes. The previous owners also farmed conventionally, using a heavy amount of herbicides and pesticides, which goes completely against my constitution.

MTP: Katusha was a mess. It was still being furrow irrigated and sulfur dusted, a potent combination for spider mite issues in Lodi. We installed subsurface irrigation for the limited watering we might do, and over-the-top drop irrigation for the hundreds of interplants we are developing. We spread about 15 tons per acre of compost over the first couple of years, and lime to counteract the years of chemical fertilizer. The soil pH was so low that vines were not able to take up nutrients. We started cover cropping and moved to partial no-till, with hopes of going fully no-till. We started seeding insectary rows every eight rows, consisting of phacelia, buckwheat, wild carrot, and oil sunflowers, to improve the beneficial insect population. We moved to wettable sprays rather than relying on dusting sulfur and follow an OMRI-compliant fungicide routine.

Evangelho is in much better shape, and we had already been working with Frank on composting and cover cropping out there the last couple of years. We will likely move toward less tillage to improve soil organic matter and plan on doing some biochar/compost trials in areas of low vigor this coming year. We did move completely away from dusting sulfur this year, and we have already seen a huge improvement in our predator/prey insect ratios, which seems to be keeping mites and mealybugs in check.

MR: Upon purchase, I began a program to evaluate the varieties currently growing on the site [and set] up test blocks for new varieties I thought may make valuable additions to the composition of the vineyard. Based on results from these trials, I grafted Chenin Blanc, Trousseau, and Vermentino into the vineyard, and have a series of future changes to the roster of vines in the works. We moved from conventional to sustainable [farming] practices and are in the process of converting to organic viticulture.

TP: The first change I made was to switch to organic farming. I haven't sprayed Roundup since I bought [the vineyard]. To put that in perspective, hand shoveling that vineyard costs around $10,000, whereas I could strip spray it for $800. But I feel good about it. I think Roundup is going to be the cigarettes of our generation. There are certainly enough farmers I know that have died of mysterious cancers.

Composting and cover cropping are other things I’ve introduced, but I still want to make the vineyard healthier and stronger. Not from a macho standpoint, or for uniformity or yield, but so that each vine is at its own healthiest point. I always preached that stressed vines make the best wines, but this drought was so extreme, the vines were like athletes pushed past their limit. Composting and cover cropping [are] great if you have enough water to send that good stuff down to the roots, but during the drought, it wasn't reaching the roots. My vineyard has subsurface irrigation installed, and I used it during the drought. I definitely planned to wean [the vineyard] off of it, but the drought was not the time. So, going forward, I want to make the vines more self-reliant and stronger.

Passalacqua's Kirschenmann Vineyard in Lodi

KW: What was the transition like going from buying fruit to selling it? How do you determine which fruit to keep and which to sell?

MN: I’ll have to answer that question in a few years, but there’s no intention to sell fruit.

MTP: We take all the fruit from Katusha. We will continue to sell to current clients at Evangelho, albeit smaller tonnage amounts, as we need to make the vineyard pencil for us.

MR: Having worked exclusively with purchased fruit for nearly a decade before the purchase of my vineyard, it was quite interesting to find myself on the other side of the equation, and not without certain challenges. In determining which fruit to keep and which to sell, each year I determine how much wine we'll produce off the estate and then make the remainder available to my colleagues and customers. I do have a few blocks I selfishly will keep mainly for myself, but having friends work with some of the best fruit is an honor and a pleasure [and broadens] my enological and viticultural perspective immensely.

TP: This was actually pretty easy for me, because all of the Zinfandel goes to Turley, and Matthew Rorick and Abe Schoener are big fans of Pinot Grigio, which I have no interest in making. That said, the Zinfandel thing is weird because I'm the farmer, but I'm also the purchaser of the fruit for Turley. Seeing as I want diversity from my 15 acres of Zinfandel, I'll pick three different times and then blend them together as our vineyard designate. It's pretty amazing that such a flat vineyard can show such differences. It isn’t separated into blocks per se, but there is variance.

KW: Why didn't you buy in Napa or Sonoma? Was cost the main reason?

MN: Cost is certainly a limiting factor, and to be honest, Napa or Sonoma weren’t anywhere close to being on the radar. On the other hand, I have long been fascinated by the Sierras—the geology and the long history of viticulture in the area. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity in the foothills. I believe it carries the same intrigue and opportunity as places like the Languedoc or Roussillon in the south of France, where winemakers of more highly prestigious places in France have flocked for their own production. To me, there’s a bit of a parallel in California.

MTP: I think there is an improper view that somehow Napa/Sonoma is naturally better than other areas of the state. There is more money available to growers and wineries in the region, which allows them to hire better talent, maintain better inputs in vineyards, etc. Areas like Oakley have enormous potential, but the standard of farming has never allowed it to show.

Also, we are working with some of the only own-rooted vinifera vines left in the world—that is just something one does not pass up. We paid about the same for Evangelho Vineyard as we would for a vineyard in Napa/Sonoma, so price was not a factor—we truly believe it is one of the best vineyards in California.

MR: Cost was not an insignificant factor, but the main reason I chose to buy a vineyard outside of Napa/Sonoma was the limestone of Calaveras County. It really was about the rocks.

TP: I was born and raised in Napa, but I just don't think I could ever afford it. I couldn't really afford to buy in Lodi! Even so, I just had to make it work, not unlike the way we all stretch to buy our first car or house. But in Napa or Sonoma, purchasing a vineyard wasn't even a possibility.

KW: How long until you recoup the cost of your purchase?

MN: Without getting into too many specifics, let’s just say my property costs less than what I can sell my small house for in downtown Napa, and it will give me the opportunity to sell the wine I produce at a very fair price.

MTP: For both vineyards, we should be breaking even in about five years. We are blessed with a strong mailing list and the capacity to sell the wines direct, which makes vineyards like this in reach.

MR: Based on a rough projection, on its own, the vineyard would produce enough revenue to recoup the cost of purchase in 80 years. As a combined vineyard and winery project, that figure could be cut by as much as half. So, there's an outside chance that the project would cover its investment cost within my lifetime.

TP: I don't really know how to answer this. The loan will be paid off in 10 more years. I'm 5 years into the loan.

KW: If you could afford to buy a vineyard anywhere, where would it be?

MN: There’s certainly other places that inspire me but I couldn’t ask for more than what I have right now.

MTP: Corsica or Etna.

In reality, Amador County.

MR: There are so many places around the world that pique my viticultural curiosity: the Savoie, the Loire, southwestern France, the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula, Slovenia, Mt. Etna, Hawke's Bay, Tasmania, the Adelaide Hills, Victoria, and the Yarra... But I'm pretty happy with what I've got.

TP: I'd still love to buy in Napa or Sonoma, but I'm not planning on it. I didn't want where I live or where I'm from to get in the way of my buying a vineyard. Ten years ago, I had a review with Ehren Jordan, [who] was getting ready to pass me the baton. He said, “I want you to be here for a very long time. What do you think you want in the long term?” I remember saying I want to own a vineyard. If it's not Napa, [he told me,] then that can be totally possible. “Keep your eyes open, and keep running the numbers. If you look at a bunch of properties, you’ll know it when the right thing comes up.” I must have put in at least 30 bids on properties in the Sierra Foothills in 2008 and 2009. I went every weekend and worked with 12 different realtors. Though I never bought anything, this is how Turley ended up with a winery out there.

Otherwise, Etna.

KW: What are your hopes for the future of your new homeland?

MN: Considering the opportunities in front of me and everyone dedicated to the Foothills, I hope that more of my North Coast peers can find the desire to move east. We’re in the midst of a renaissance in the California wine industry. There are so many inspired wines being produced out here, and potential in the Sierras is still relatively untapped. I’m honored to be a part of the community here, but there’s still plenty of work to do and a lot more history to be made.

MTP: That we can continue to change the perception of the areas and that more people from Sonoma/Napa join us. Farming is a potent tool for improving wine quality—go figure.

MR: I am most excited to continue to re-forge a link to California's pre-Prohibition viticultural tradition. Chenin Blanc and Riesling were the most widely planted white varieties in California in the 19th century, and Mondeuse and Trousseau were here as well before Prohibition drastically altered the landscape. What would the wines of California look like today if we had a hundred years of refining our growing practices and site selection for these varieties? Along with a handful of like-minded colleagues, it has been a great inspiration to pick up this thread of viticultural inquiry. And as California's viticultural tradition includes a strong emphasis on experimentation and exploration, it has been inspiring to explore growing varieties altogether new to the state. It is my hope to have our work contribute to the ever-deepening understanding of winegrowing in California—both preserving its history and moving ahead into its future.

TP: I just want there to be a little bit more of a wine culture in Lodi. By which I mean small vineyards being farmed and turned into wines of place, rather than going into mass blends. In this way, people can start to figure out what those sites are, what they represent in Lodi, and what they represent in the world of wine. Vineyards like mine went into massive blends and were sold to Gallo for so long, there was no real way to know what they tasted like.

Editor's note: Interviews have been edited for length. Thanks to Matt, Morgan, Matthew, and Tegan for participating!