Growing up, Jim Barbour, one of Napa Valley’s most respected and skilled vineyard managers, hated farming. “I wanted to be with my friends,” he said.
In 1962, Barbour’s father bought 30 acres in the Napa Valley, where Sequoia Grove Vineyards is now, and when Barbour was 8 or 9 years old, he was expected to help out in the vineyards.
“Dad always wanted to be a farmer,” Barbour said. “We came up on the weekends and did all the work.” One winter, for example, the father gave the son the “staggering” sum of $250 to prune the 30 acres of vines. Barbour said the vines were head pruned, planted in an eight-by-eight spacing, and the grapes were sold to the Napa Valley Co-op and used for blending.
Besides pruning, Barbour also helped harvest the grapes, which were put in lug boxes. One of his tasks was to carry the lug boxes out of the vineyard.
Barbour went to UC Davis, not to study viticulture, but to become a parole officer. He said that didn’t work out and he came back to the Napa Valley where he got a job with Frank “Laurie” Wood & Sons. He worked for Wood for 14 years, from 1975 to 1989, farmed some 1,200 acres and planted a number of hillside vineyards, including those for Dick Grace in 1976. Barbour also helped re-develop most of York Creek and planted vineyards for Cain, Gamble, which is now Pride Mountain, Heidi Peterson Barrett and others in Spring Mountain and in Conn Valley.
Barbour was talking about his history in the vineyards during a recent tasting of seven Napa Valley cabernets, coordinated by David and Monica Stevens, proprietors of St. Helena’s 750 Wines. The Stevens gathered a case of 12 wines, all but one cabernet sauvignons, made from vineyards tended by Jim Barbour and his partners, Nate George and Jesus Rios and their crews. Currently, Barbour’s company farms 500 acres and oversees another 460 acres.
In his flier offering “The Best of Barbour” cases, David Stevens writes that everyone knows about the winemakers, who are the superstars of the industry. But, he writes, rarely is anything written about the vineyard managers, despite their role being so vital to the winemaking process. The team members at Barbour Vineyards “execute a vast range of farming duties for their clients,” Stevens writes, adding “their job is to manipulate the vineyard into giving the winemaker the best possible fruit.”
He adds, “Working with Jim Barbour on this project has afforded us the opportunity to meet a number of terrific new vintners, reconnect with vintners who are old friends and in doing so, reinforced something we already knew; this business is all about relationships.”
When Wood started to retire, Barbour said he formed his own vineyard management company in 1990. “It was not all that easy to start a business. I was taking jobs in Atherton, Woodside, all over, just to pay the bills,” Barbour said. Not today. The business is based in the Napa Valley and Barbour is selective in who he will work for. He said he can sit and talk with the vineyard owners, look at the ground “and know in the first five minutes whether I will work for them.” If the ground will not produce the best grapes, and thus the best wines, or if the owners want to tell Barbour how to farm the land, it’s likely Barbour will give them a name of another vineyard manager.
Barbour said the 2009 growing season started with a bang, with 100 to 104 degree temperatures in May. After a cool summer and growing season, the thermometer spiked again to 100-degree-plus heat the first week of September. Barbour said he thought everything would ripen too fast, but then the temperature dropped and for three weeks, the high for many days was in the 70s. There were also sporadic showers in September, but it wasn’t until mid-October that the first big storm hit, when it rained from 3 1/2 to 4 inches in many locations. A lot of the valley’s cabernet sauvignon remained on the vine and Barbour remembers his crew harvesting grapes for Thomas Brown in the rain. “We quit in mid-day, but it turns out we should’ve kept on picking,” he said.
After pulling the vines’ canopies to dry out the grape clusters, it rained again. Barbour told his clients it was time to pick, that the grapes had shut down and were not going to get any riper.
One of Barbour’s clients is Jayson Woodbridge of Hundred Acre winery in St. Helena. After this year’s mid-October rains, which Barbour called “a nightmare,” Woodbridge hired a helicopter to hover about 20 feet over the vineyards to dry out the 100-acres of grapes. One of those at the tasting knew about the helicopter and had shot video of it on his phone. He showed the video, to the appreciation of those at the tasting.
The limited case of wine sells for $1,500, plus tax. Most of the wines are sold out and one, the 2007 Ashe Family Vineyards cabernet, will be released in March. Only 50 cases will be produced. For more information on “The Best of Barbour,” call Stevens at 963-0750 or visit www.750wines.com.