To the eye of a tourist, the beautiful blocks of vineyards surrounded by the picturesque Mayacamas Mountains may seem like a timeless tribute to the agricultural bounty of the Napa Valley.
Yet, less than 100 years ago, Napa County’s bounty wasn’t measured in wine grapes alone, but from a broad mixture of crops and produce that included cherries, peaches, plums, prunes, walnuts, beef cattle, sheep, poultry, and grain crops. And while the quality of the valley’s wine grapes was always a hallmark of the perfect climate and the productive soils, what visitors to the valley today often do not realize is that Napa County is in the midst of a wine grape resurgence that is unprecedented in its impact to the agricultural communities that reside here.
According to the 2013 Napa County Crop Report, compiled by the Napa County agricultural commissioner and released in July, the grape crop was valued in excess of $650 million, earning on average better than $3,500 a ton. Red varieties in 2013 represented 82 percent of that value with cabernet sauvignon grapes averaging $5,474 per ton from over 19,000 acres of bearing vineyards, followed by cabernet franc at $5,429 per ton from over 1,100 acres of bearing vineyards.
By comparison, chardonnay averaged $2,469 per ton from planted acreage of over 6,700 acres, providing an excellent rationale for why vineyard managers consider cabernet “king” in the county.
How did the grape farmers achieve these prices? When did it start?
Tony Mitchell has kept an eye on the figures coming out of annual crop report in his role as a vineyard manager. He’s the managing owner of Mitchell Vineyards, LLC in St. Helena and his organization manages about 300 acres in 35 parcels. Mitchell said, that even though the price of the 2013 grapes on average were a record, he has watched those values fluctuate up and down year after year. For instance, according to Mitchell’s figures, prices for cabernet sauvignon actually dropped by more than 8 percent from 2009 to 2010, and the following year cabernet franc dropped by better than 5 percent, as did a number of other reds.
Yet, interestingly, 2010 was a banner year for the cab wines that were vinted in the Napa valley, with an unusually high number of wines getting 90 points and above by Robert Parker. In other words, the price of the crop doesn’t necessarily reflect the ultimate value of the wines that are produced. It’s the quality of the grapes that counts.
But some years, even the highest quality grapes can’t find buyers. There is, according to Mitchell, a basic supply and demand cycle that reflects the long-term rise and fall of the economy, combined with an even longer cycle of vineyard land availability. Right now, Mitchell said, there’s a new boom in vineyard planting that is a result of the increasing demand for grapes. But in the Napa Valley, there’s not much suitable land left, driving up land prices and – ultimately – grape prices.
Mitchell remembers growing up in the valley when grapes were not the only crop. “Up on Dry Creek Road there were apple, pear, and walnut orchards,” he said. “And down by the Soda Canyon Store there were calf-roping events.”
In fact, reviewing the crop reports going back as far as 1923, one of the most important products that the Napa County raised was beef. Between 1953 and 1973 the value of meat production in the county far outstripped the value of grapes representing an average of 38 percent vs. 28 percent of crop values. In that same time frame dairy and poultry were important products too, representing nearly a quarter of crop values.
The turning point for grapes came in the years between 1963 and 1973 when the average price of grapes leapfrogged from $95 per ton to almost $610 per ton, an increase of 532 percent. (By comparison, the 2013 average price of $3,585 per ton would represent an increase of 3678 percent.)
Some, of course, could see this trend coming. Aldo Defino, agricultural commissioner during that period, began noting as far back as 1965 that although “…beef continues to be our leading agricultural product in value,” ... “wine grapes, our second leading agricultural commodity, continues to gain in prominence in Napa County Agriculture, both in acreage and production.” A year later, Robert Mondavi built the first new winery in the valley since Prohibition in Oakville, and the race for vineyard acreage began in earnest. By 1983 the proportion of crop value in meat, poultry, and dairy production had plummeted to about 8 percent, while the relative value of grapes had skyrocket to over 90 percent.
With the monoculture of wine grapes came the increase in the seriousness of pest control. Pierce’s Disease and more recently the European Grapevine Moth continue to cause alarm, and Tony Mitchell noted that “of course it’s a dangerous situation because all our eggs are in the same basket. We can usually handle one pest, but two or three and it gets very difficult. There used to be buffer zones – other crops between vineyards.” Today, those buffer crops are no longer there, and the opportunity for the rapid spread of a pest is always a concern.
But not all the old crops and produce are gone.
Just ask Dr. Wendell Dinwiddie who has been growing peaches at the corner of Deer Park Road and Silverado Trail for 25 years.
When reached by telephone, he was preparing for the Sunday opening day of his peach stand, but he took time to remember the days back in the ‘80s when people grew a lot of things in Napa County. “There was a prune dryer in St. Helena,” he said. That same building today houses the offices for Constellation Brands. “And there were two slaughter houses in the valley,” he continued. One of those buildings on the Silverado Trail was renovated into Hill Wine Company, which recently filed for bankruptcy. “There was also a big chicken ranch down on Zinfandel,” he said, speaking of a property that was recently granted a new winery permit.
Times have changed in the valley, or so the compiled crop reports tell us year after year. Still, at the corner of Silverado Trail and Deer Park Road people are known to slow down to take note of the little sign that tells them when Dr Dinwiddie’s peaches will be ripe. “People seem to appreciate it,” Dr. Dinwiddie said. “Some of them come back year after year.”