Although Andy Beckstoffer has been called the most powerful winegrape grower in Napa, he is more likely to be found wearing cowboy boots than wingtips.
That’s because he likes the relaxed lifestyle of farmers and the truce they have made with Mother Nature.
“Farmers learn early on they’re not in control,” said Beckstoffer, 76. “You do your best, and then you relax.”
These days he is doing both, growing grapes in Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties and selling them to wineries. With about 1,200 acres of vineyards in Mendocino — about a third of his company’s holdings — Beckstoffer is focused on promoting the Hopland Passport festival coming up Saturday.
“Mendocino has been a very important part of our business since the beginning,” he said, with vineyards stretching from Hopland to Ukiah.
Beckstoffer Vineyards was founded in 1973 and now owns more than 3,600 acres of vineyards in Northern California. About 1,000 acres are in Napa Valley, including six storied heritage vineyards that supply cabernet sauvignon grapes to wineries such as Alpha Omega, Duckhorn, Stag’s Leap, Franciscan, Paul Hobbs and Sojourn Cellars.
In 2010, Beckstoffer added the 13-acre Bourn Vineyard in St. Helena, which dates back to 1870 and was priced at $3.9 million. Why was he willing to pay the price?
“To find a great vineyard, we have to do it empirically,” Beckstoffer said. “These lands have been in vineyards since the 1900s, so they must be doing something right.”
His office in Rutherford opens to 240 acres of vineyards, with an early morning layer of fog often hovering over the cabernet vines. Inside, a bust of Chippewa Chief Minavavana, circa 1760, reminds Beckstoffer of his connection to the land and his commitment to preserving it. Beneath the bust is this passage: “…these lakes, these woods, these mountains were left to us by our ancestors. They are our inheritance and we will part with them to none.”
As his son David puts it, Beckstoffer’s deep connection to the land is telling. “I think one of the reasons he has never been keen on getting into the wine production side of the business is that his connection with the land and farming is his true passion,” said David Beckstoffer, 54, who serves as his father’s COO. “His respect and appreciation for nature is the driving force behind his commitment to open space and the preservation of agricultural land.”
Beckstoffer got his first taste of California vineyards in the 1960s while working as a business analyst for Heublein, the alcoholic beverage producer. In 1969, Heublein purchased famed Napa Valley wineries such as Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards. In 1973, Beckstoffer formed his own company and purchased the farming arm of Heublein’s California wine enterprise, which came with 500-plus acres of Mendocino vines.
“We saw the potential that Heublein didn’t see, and that’s why we were anxious to buy the company including the land in Mendocino,” Beckstoffer said. “I think we’ve proven the quality of the land, and I think we can improve it.”
In 1974, he followed with the former Mendocino State Hospital near Ukiah because he had an eye for the 500-plus acres of rich agricultural land on the property. He sold the hospital buildings the following year but without that coveted agricultural land, and has continued to add to his holdings.
“Some people don’t understand that we were so much bigger in Mendocino in the beginning than we were in Napa,” Beckstoffer said. “We believed in Mendocino County. It’s where we wanted to be.”
In 2014, his company bought the 190-acre Feliz Creek Vineyard in Hopland, land that is well suited to the cabernet sauvignon grapes that Beckstoffer specializes in. The company now holds 516 acres of Mendocino cabernet and 416 acres in Napa Valley.
“That’s who we are,” Beckstoffer said. “We’re looking for a climate warm enough to ripen cab, and then we’re looking for well-drained land. That said, in a great vineyard the total is more than the sum of the parts.”
Money also plays a role in his decisions.
“Unplanted vineyard land in Napa is 10 times the price of the same land in Mendocino,” Beckstoffer said. “In Napa Valley there’s no secret where great vineyards are, but you better have a big bag of money and the ability to farm it properly … There are still some secrets in Lake and Mendocino counties.”
In Lake County, the company owns 1,429 acres with the great majority in cabernet sauvignon vines. Beckstoffer said he will always give the late vintner Jess Jackson credit for those holdings.
“Jess Jackson said Lake County can’t grow great cabernet,” he said. “I thank him for that because if he had wanted in, he had a whole lot more money than I do.”
Beckstoffer said none of the company’s Lake County vines burned in the recent fires, nor did they suffer smoke taint. “It hopped south of us and then the wind blew east.”
In fact, he is so confident his Lake County cabernet is thriving, that he has created an initiative to create cabs from the region priced between $80 and $100.
“I’m giving 10 winemakers an acre of grapes for three years, 3½ tons per acre,” Beckstoffer said. “We’ll give them the grapes and require them to use all their cult techniques.”
Beckstoffer said there’s a niche for this price point, with some Napa Valley cult cabs now priced from $150 to $450-plus.
David Beckstoffer said that sense of commitment has been key to his father’s success.
“Once he commits to something it takes a great deal to turn his head in a different direction,” he said. “Stubborn? Perhaps that’s one way to look at it, but I’ve always been impressed by his ability to stick to his guns once he makes up his mind, regardless of whether his decision is popular or not.”
Beckstoffer said he would rather be remembered as a great steward of the land than a great winemaker.
“I like growing things,” he said simply.