Napa Valley has changed. Just ask the Araujos and the Krupps.
The two families, whose names are today fixtures in the world of Napa wine, are starting over. Having reached a level of success enjoyed by few in their industry, each vintner clan now hopes for more, embodying their second acts in a pair of new wineries here.
But even as the reinventions add new folds to family legacies, they also throw Napa’s modern wine industry into sharp relief, updating its possibilities, pressures and what wineries must do to thrive and survive today.
Among the most significant of these, the families say, are new horizons in quality and a winemaking process made near-seamless by the latest in winery technology. Starker still is the need like never before to host visitors, who have gradually become the lifeblood of many in the county’s iconic industry.
As Daphne and Bart Araujo stepped into the fermentation building on a recent morning at Wheeler Farms – the couple’s new custom crush facility near St. Helena that opened to visitors last year – they recalled asking themselves when they bought the property several years earlier: “If you were able to do this over again, what would you do differently?”
“All of a sudden we had the opportunity to do that,” Bart Araujo said.
In 2013, the Araujos sold their namesake Calistoga estate, including the storied Eisele Vineyard, capping 23 years of ownership and an ascent to the top tier of Napa producers. Yet within a year of the sale, they had turned a page and purchased the Zinfandel Lane property that now hosts the Wheeler Farms complex.
Building the site from the ground up, the couple fashioned what today may be the most technologically advanced and expensive custom crush facility in Napa Valley; its state-of-the-art systems and replanted vineyard keeping them circling around wine, long their day-to-day center of gravity.
“It’s the structure around which we base our lives,” Daphne Araujo said.
Dr. Jan Krupp knows the feeling.
“I think if I weren’t making wine or growing grapes, I’d be pretty bored,” the doctor-turned-vintner said last month at the site of his own latest revolution, the new Krupp Brothers Winery and Estate.
Along with his brother Bart Krupp, Jan vinified and owned Napa’s largest and one of its most renowned single vineyards, Stagecoach, for more than two decades, selling it last March to E. & J. Gallo Winery for a reported $180 million. Shortly after the sale, the Krupps bought Kitchak Cellars, the Tuscan-styled estate on Hardman Avenue northeast of the city of Napa that today has become the first complete home for the brothers’ brand, Krupp Brothers wine.
Founded in 1999, the Krupps’ wine has until now been made in a series of custom crush facilities throughout the county. Though the process has yielded wines the brothers were pleased with, the sale of Stagecoach offered a shot at improvement, Jan Krupp said. “I felt we could make better wine if we had our own winery.”
For the Araujos, the Wheeler Farms property offered more production capacity than was needed for Accendo, their latest burgeoning wine brand that they own with their children. Seeking like-minded winemakers, the couple opted to have several partners in the venture, and along with Accendo, brands like Arrow & Branch, TOR and Vice Versa now produce their wine in the custom crush space.
But while their concepts differ, the families share the same emphases on technology, quality and visitors that have greatly shaped the identity of their new wineries.
Among the advances being applied at both Krupp and Araujo sites are automated fermentation tanks, each of which “is basically a little winery,” said Bart Araujo.
The tanks’ software allows winemakers to control each one with their phones, planning and carrying out pump-overs without delay or even the need to be on site.
“You can do whatever the wine needs around the clock,” Jan Krupp said, noting that each tank has its own pumps and hoses, which cuts out the need to change hoses between tanks. This also removes much of the chance that mistakes will be made during the process, he said.
“Something can still go wrong,” he added. “But it’s a lot less likely.”
The 60 tanks at Wheeler Farms are also reinforced by a massive generator that Bart Araujo “complained bitterly about at the beginning,” he said. When suggested by consulting winemaker Nigel Kinsman, who helped design the facility, Bart protested: “Well, we never had that at Araujo.”
Yet, when wildfires raged throughout the county last October and smoke hung over the valley, many were left without power for days on end, while at Wheeler Farms “we were out for three minutes,” Araujo said.
“Both of those changes just really proved invaluable in terms of salvaging a vintage,” he said.
Before the grapes reach the tanks at Wheeler Farms, they pass through an optical sorter, another upgrade that allows the fruit to be processed three times faster than normal sorting and with fewer hands involved. A cold room also houses the grapes at Wheeler Farms while they wait to be sorted, ensuring that no fruit has to sit outside and potentially degrade from heat before being processed. The facility’s cellar and barrel room are also temperature controlled, making it possible to chill or humidify the space as needed.
At Krupp’s winery, the automated tanks and optical sorter are still forthcoming, though he hopes for them to be up and running perhaps in a matter of months and “certainly before crush this year.” Once the tanks are in place and the facility is complete, production of Krupp Brothers wine will take place entirely at the new estate.
Krupp Brothers has produced around 4,500 cases a year via custom crush, but now with its own winery, which came with a production permit for 6,500 cases a year, the brand is slated to grow to 5,500 or 6,000 cases per year, Krupp said. Its volume is projected to grow in tandem with its direct-to-consumer business, which the new winery is also expected to help boost.
“One of the things that really appealed to us about this place was that it’s visually very appealing,” Krupp said, standing outside of the winery’s stately barrel room.
“Having a room like this for people to look at, the lake, the patio out there. It tends to bring people in,” he said. “They tend to sign up for the wine club. So I found this to be a really good marketing tool, this place.”
Growing this side of their business over the last five to six years, the Krupps have shifted their sales from roughly 20 percent direct to consumer to 55 percent, with plans to grow it to 70 percent, Krupp said.
To this end, the brand also opened its First Street tasting room in downtown Napa in 2016. Now though, the Krupps are looking to increase visitorship at the new winery and are preparing a plan to submit to the county that would raise the number of possible daily visitors from the 20 allowed today to 40 in the future, and increase the number of events at the estate. “We don’t need to see 40 every day,” Krupp said. “But on Saturdays that would be great to be permitted for that.”
Krupp noted that for smaller producers in today’s Napa Valley wine industry, such a business model has become a necessity in recent years.
“It does seem to be the model that we need to have,” he said. “It seems like as the distributors consolidate, their bread and butter isn’t the small brands unless it’s a very, very famous small brand. So they really focus on the big volume brands and then the smaller brands get lost in the shuffle.”
In designing the Wheeler Farms complex, the Araujos also considered the need for the tenant brands to offer more than just wine to today’s consumers.
“The wine business is very different today than it was,” Bart Araujo said. “When we started out it was just basically people only wanting their allocations … and today, it’s very much about people want a relationship with the people that are producing wine and they want experiences.”
Thus one of the three structures of the Wheeler Farms is designated wholly for hospitality, equipped with a commercial kitchen and a malleable space for each brand to use, with views of vineyards and Mount St. Helena in the distance. A culinary program is also in the works.
In considering the property, an existing permit for visitors and events was part of the appeal, the Araujos said.
“The consumer has just an incredible number of options of excellent wines,” Bart pointed out. “So how do you make your choice? It seems as though decisions are made not just on the basis of liking the wine – because there are a lot of wines you can like – but liking the people or the philosophy or whatever behind the brand.”
Though the current state of the industry obliges the couple to take a more visitor-centric approach this time around, the change is not an unwelcome one.
“We do things a certain way and we want to talk about that and we make wines a certain way and we want them to taste that,” Daphne Araujo said. “I think that’s what people want. They want the authenticity, they want to connect. When they come to Napa, they don’t want to just be on the road driving by. They want to be in the experience.”
While for the both the Araujos and Krupps, starting over has meant adjusting to and embracing the new expectations of today’s wine drinkers, as well as new methods and upgrades to their winemaking, both stressed that the end goal remains the same.
“It’s just there are some things along the road that have changed,” Bart Araujo said, “like those tanks, like the optical sorter …. It’s not rocket science, but they’re all little things that help contribute to the ultimate level of quality that we have.”
“I’ve always wanted to buy a winery and to take that quality up one more notch,” Jan Krupp said. “I really didn’t have the time or the financial resources to do it before selling Stagecoach …. Winemaking was my hobby. It’s how I got into grape growing. And it’s nice to be able to focus on it and really get it right.”