Early pioneers established some of the finest vineyards in the Napa Valley more than 150 years ago. George Calvert Yount was first credited with planting wine grapes in the valley in 1839.
More recent entrants have been Inglenook’s John Daniel Jr. and Beaulieu Vineyards’ Georges de Latour, who purchased and reinvigorated languishing vineyards after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Other names, too — Patchett, Crabb, Tchelistcheff, Mondavi, Beckstoffer, Hill — have had lasting impact on the valley’s agricultural profile. Yet behind each have often been lesser-known names who acted as guides. Some call these often-secretive prophets vineyard whispers. Meet one of them — Richard Brockmeyer.
Owner of Wine Industry Investment Consultants, Brockmeyer grew up in Bakersfield, where his father was a high school agriculture teacher and his grandfather, Cederquist, was a farmer with 80 acres of vineyard that included a small section of old-vine Grenache vines, some of which had been planted in the late 1800s.
“Looking back, my entire life has had a central theme — understanding the land as it relates to farming,” he said. “As a kid I’d drive out to some remote ranch with my dad and check in on some student’s project. Those were some great memories, and it just seemed to fit what I wanted to do with my life.”
As he walked through the vineyards with his father and grandfather, they would point out how the soil, water and sun associated with a certain piece of land were intricately linked to the quality, longevity and sustainability of the crops grown — or the “basic equation,” as Brockmeyer puts it.
The college years
After obtaining a bachelor of science degree from Fresno State University in agriculture, he had plans to enroll at UC Davis and continue on as a farmer, but an influential Fresno professor — Douglas Cords — suggested he apply to Stanford’s MBA program.
“I’m not exactly sure what Dr. Cords saw in me, but when I got to Stanford I was one of two Ag majors in a class of 300. So for a while I was scratching my head and asking how I’d gotten there and why,” Brockmeyer said. “One of the lessons I eventually learned was that building a team with a mix of experiences and backgrounds lends itself to help solve complex problems.”
After the first year at the business school, he noticed an ad on a bulletin board asking students to apply for a summer internship. William Hill wanted to hire five students that summer, and one of them ended up being Brockmeyer.
“This is before Bill had fully gone into the wine business, and my project that summer was titled “Supply and Demand Analysis of North Coast Premium Wine Grapes,” Brockmeyer said. “Bill had this economic hunch that agriculture — and especially premium wine grapes — would provide what’s known as a scarce-resource investment opportunity, which at the time was a novel idea.”
Hill, a Stanford graduate from a few years prior, had become enamored with wine while traveling in Europe and had decided to explore the economics behind the grape-growing and wine businesses.
“What I’d learned is that the primary determinant for wine quality is the vineyard where the grapes are from,” Hill said. “Brock was one of four or five students I had look at the variables behind what makes a quality vineyard and just how much such land was out there — and there wasn’t much. We also looked at the demand for wine in the U.S., which to my surprise was growing faster than I expected.”
Brockmeyer would go on to work with Hill after graduation. One of his first projects was helping develop a Napa Valley vineyard called Diamond Mountain Ranch.
“The development of that vineyard was an eye-opening experience,” Brockmeyer said. “No. 1, I’d never spent much time in the Napa Valley and it was beautiful. But it also seemed like all the pieces were starting to come together.”
Hill had found the vineyard — an abandoned prune orchard — but he understood that the land and distinctive microenvironment could have a direct impact on the production of quality wine. They cleared and planted vines, and a few years later Sterling Vineyards purchased the property at a significant profit.
“Bill’s plan was to keep the property for longer, but the offer was the proverbial ‘can’t pass it up’ type,” Brockmeyer said. “I think all those who were involved in that project felt like we were on to something pretty special.”
CalPERS and Premiere Pacific Vineyards (PPV)
By the early 2000s, some of the largest professional investment funds on the planet had noticed the lofty returns coming from the premium wine grape-growing real estate sector. In what might have been the largest of such investors at the time, in 2002 the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS ) invested $200 million — a drop in the bucket for the nation’s largest public pension fund with totaling $165 billion at the time — to fund the development of premium vineyards in California, Oregon and Washington.
The company they chose to lead the acquisition and development efforts was Premier Pacific Vineyards Inc., which had been co-founded by Hill a few years earlier.
“I wanted Brock to be a part of the PPV team because over the years of working together I knew he had the skills to help find the highest-quality vineyards,” Hill said. “He never would come to me with a bad property.”
Over the next half-dozen years, Brockmeyer and the PPV team found and developed more than 30 vineyards. And although CalPERS was one of the first to see premium vineyards as a sound way to diversify its investment portfolio, it was not the last. Today, there are hundreds of endowment funds, private equity firms and state pension funds that have invested in the world of high-end wine, often with the Napa Valley a potential target.
“What PPV showed was that what Bill had us evaluating back in 1974 was correct — quality vineyards are a scarce resource and, as such, provide a significant long-term investment opportunity,” Brockmeyer said.
Brockmeyer has continued to work with companies looking to find and develop the finest vineyards. Over his long career, he has worked with some of the region’s luminaries. He’s learned the value of understanding a property’s soil type, drainage, depth, orientation to the sun and microclimate as ways to know if — and what type of — grapes will thrive.
But he has learned something else, too — that, if done correctly, creating (keep creating) a new vineyard that grows premium wine grapes ensures that the piece of land is never bulldozed and covered with houses, a parking lot or a strip mall.
“I am proud that some of the vineyards I’ve help to uncover have gone on to produce some of the most coveted wines on the market,” he said. “It makes me smile to read the Wine Spectator’s “Top 100 Wines” and see a few of the vineyards mentioned at the top. That means they’ll be there for a while.”
Beyond continuing to advise clients on finding and developing high-end vineyards, Brockmeyer, his wife, Cindy, their son, Brett (associate winemaker at Cade) and his partner, Brianna, are launching their own wine brand — a rosé that comes from the ancient vines of his grandfather’s vineyard in Bakersfield.
“The grapes from the vineyard have been sold off for years, but a few years back we started making some wine and found that they made pretty special wine,” Brockmeyer said. “It’s rare to taste a rosé from 125-year-old vines.”
The pale-pink 2018 Brockmeyer Cederquist Vineyard Rosé ($22 a bottle and 150 cases made) comes from his grandfather’s old-vine Grenache vineyard in Fresno County and is perfectly balanced with complex aromas of crushed strawberry, rose petal and white peach. On the palate the flavors are of cranberry and crunchy watermelon finished with raspberries and a wonderful earthy, slightly saline note.
Brockmeyer paused as we talked. We stood on a hill overlooking the Napa Valley. Well-kept vines formed long rows that slipped westward toward the San Pablo Bay. The earth was rocky and dry, surprising seeing as how 3 inches of rain had fallen the night before, highlighting its well-drained characteristic. He bent down and picked up a handful of gravelly soil.
“Maybe I’m getting a little sentimental, but the longest-lived vines have seen their share of challenges and I have a greater appreciation now,” he said, letting the soil slip through his hands. “You can’t create a great vineyard overnight. Vineyards, the finest of them, are a heritage, something much more than just an investment. The best allow that particular piece of earth to speak. All we have to do is learn how to listen.”