How to own a vineyard without getting your boots dirty

Miguel Luna of Silverado Farming Co with his La Pelle wines

Issues, both human and viticultural, currently confronting Napa Valley vineyards. Above, Miguel Luna of Silverado Farming Company with his La Pelle 2021s. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

Owning a vineyard still seems to be as popular a dream as running a restaurant, and it need not require nearly as much work. Many a wannabe restaurateur is someone who loves cooking for friends and who feels, almost certainly inaccurately, that cooking for strangers would be only a small step up.

The wine-producing business can be a very different kettle of fish. At its most basic level, rather than embracing a bucolic lifestyle, it admittedly involves a constant battle with nature. But the sort of battle envisaged by a typical tech billionaire who wants to add to Napa Valley’s 1,000-plus wine brands is more likely to be one with wine critics. How to get a 100-point score in as short a time as possible?

This will almost certainly involve hiring a vineyard management company. There are about 60 of them operating in America’s most cosseted wine region, farming about 25,000 of the valley’s 45,000 acres (18,211 ha) of vineyard. This contrasts with the system that operates in, say, Burgundy or Germany, where wine producers farm the land themselves (although there are vineyard management companies in Europe, even in England).

I’m rather fascinated by the stereotypical Napa Valley novice wine producer, imagining them spending far more time deciding on label design than on pruning decisions. After all, they can take full advantage of the plethora of wineries willing to rent out space and equipment there, and hire one of the many consultants to make the wine. And if they own vines, the odds are they will hire a vineyard management company so they may never actually get their boots dirty.

Pete Richmond of Silverado Farming Co

While in the valley recently I had a fascinating meeting with Pete Richmond (above), founder of Silverado Farming Company, who claims to be the valley’s ‘leading farmer of premium acres’ with a bulging roster of wine-producer clients.

I wondered what were the red flags for new entrants into the wine-producing business. ‘An enormous amount of money’, was Richmond’s first response. ‘They arrive thinking they’re going to redefine the wine business and become the next Bill Harlan [the valley’s reigning squire]. They’ll spend $6 million on a vineyard and then get a shock when you tell them they’ll have to spend $30 million if they want a winery. People from investment banking are a special concern because they tend to come in determined to drive down costs. And tech people find it difficult because they want everything to be perfect. But it’s never going to be perfect when you have outside labour.’

Richmond employs 150 people full-time and with seasonal workers he can have 600 on the payroll at any one time, claiming that 60–70% of them have worked for him in the past. They almost all come from Mexico, like his right-hand man Miguel Luna, who laughed when we started to discuss the ‘dreaded Mexican immigrant’ trope. ‘What people don’t realise is that most Mexicans want to go back home every year’, he said. ‘They just want to come here to earn money.’

Richmond is working with the US government to bring his staff in from Mexico on 10-month visas. He is famous in the valley for the lengths he goes to to improve the lot of the people whom many call farmworkers. Recognising the particular expertise exhibited by the Latino workforce, Richmond wants to elevate the nomenclature to ‘farmers’. 

Back in 2006 he founded the One Percent for the Community Fund whereby 1% of Silverado Farming’s gross profits now goes to a fund managed by the workforce. With Luna, he works, often on a case-by-case basis, to provide housing, medical care and, crucially, education for the families of this highly skilled population without whom Napa Valley wine would not exist.

As pretty much everywhere in the world, there is a farm labour shortage. According to Richmond, ‘we’re not competing with other farm jobs here, we’re competing with landscapers and construction workers, so we need a really attractive package for employees’. As much as 30% of Richmond’s workforce is now female, including, unusually, women supervising all-male crews. Silverado already provides training and English classes, and Richmond is working on providing suitable day care and pre-school education for the families of those whose working days begin at 6 am.

Luna, who arrived in Napa Valley with his family at the age of 13 speaking no English, and who, according to Richmond, will soon be president of Silverado, observed, ‘the rest of the wine world may eventually go to machines in the vineyard, but not here’. Richmond, who calls Napa Valley ‘the Hollywood of farming’, pointed out, ‘we generally figure each vine will get touched by hand 11 times during the year’ – a level of precision difficult to mechanise.

I asked them how many of their clients know how to prune a vine. They exchanged a smile before Richmond responded: ‘they all think they do’. Eventually, when pressed, they cited a few names of viticulturally skilled wine producers, not necessarily their clients: David Abreu, Philippe Melka, Michael Silacci of Opus One, Chris Cooney at Dana Estates and the Morisolis in Rutherford.

I had visited Gary Morisoli and his son Chris earlier in the day and my head was full of the virus that is currently the scourge of vineyards all along the west coast and in New York State: red blotch. During a visit the day before to the much-admired Vine Hill Ranch in Oakville, whose vines are managed by a competitor of Pete Richmond’s, Mike Wolf, who has 40 clients with a total of 700 acres (283 ha) worked by his farmers, the team there mentioned red blotch within minutes of my arrival.

It does sound like a nightmare for growers. It robs grapes of flavour and structure but is extremely difficult to spot in the vineyard. It may, but does not always, result in red patches on vine leaves (and yellow leaves on light-skinned varieties), and only late in the season. The test for it developed some years ago is not definitive.

Gary Morisoli first spotted it in their vineyard five or six years ago and described its effects as ‘devastating’. He planted a new 9-acre Cabernet vineyard in 2017 and has already had to pull out almost half an acre of it. He told me that those who help him in the vineyard have learned to spot it. ‘The grapes taste flat and bitter.’

The vector so far established is an insect known as the three-cornered alfalfa hopper and the wind can blow it in. This is leading to bitter disputes with the owners of neighbouring vineyards who refuse to carry out the costly operation of pulling out affected vines – the only known strategy so far.

I asked Richmond about red blotch and his reaction was to make a sound that might be transliterated as ‘Phhsoooh’. He sighed, ‘it’s probably everywhere on the west coast now, including the [vast] Central Valley. And the only solution is diligence.’

It has not so far been encountered in commercial vineyards in Europe, and nor has the three-cornered alfalfa hopper, so this looks like an all-American problem. But a very expensive one in a part of the world not famous for its bargains.

2021 Napa Cabernets

I tasted roughly two-thirds of the nearly 300 examples submitted to for a tasting at the Napa Valley Vintners association. Sam Cole-Johnson tasted the rest. These were my favourites among those I tasted there and at a few wineries. Not all are yet released. Most will be available at the winery, some are strictly allocated. Prices are recommended retail price per bottle.

Cathiard Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Napa Valley 14.4%

Corison, Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 St Helena 13.8%

Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Oakville 14.6%

Dalla Valle, Maya 2021 Oakville 14.6%

Dominus 2021 Napa Valley 15%
$329, $979.99 a magnum Total Wine

Favia Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Oakville 15%

Favia, Cerro Sur 2021 Napa Valley 14.8%

Favia, La Magdalena 2021 Napa Valley 14.8%

Gallica, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Napa Valley 14.5%

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 St Helena 13.6%
$285, $279.99 Zachys

VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Oakville 14.8%

And the bargain is Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 Napa Valley  14.7%
$39 and due in the UK by December

Access to the tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates in Napa 2021 Cabernets A–K and L–Z is included in membership of Relatively few international stockists are currently listed on Better to look on individual winery websites.