After the pruning is done each year at Dave Becker’s Oak Knoll vineyard, the grower travels into Napa to buy a farm implement critical to mulching the trimmings and mowing the cover crop. Passing up the usual farm supply stores, Becker pulls into Walmart and heads straight for the gardening section.
“The only thing I can get through the vineyard is a lawn mower,” Becker laughs, standing beside his cabernet vineyard that has been squeezed into about an acre of land. “In Walmart I go to the box that says ‘Ideal for small lawns’ … the cheapest lawn mower they have. Then I destroy it in the vineyard by mulching everything back in. So far I’ve gone through about 10 mowers — they’re a different color every year.”
The epitome of the do-it-yourself grower and winemaker, Becker is owner, operator and sole farmhand of One Acre Wines, a name that quite literally describes the origin of his product. Becker has also become a role model of sorts for small scale growers and winemakers throughout the world.
On the back of his wine label, the phrase “One Acre, One Guy, One Wine,” sums up Becker’s concept. Strictly a one-man show, each year he grows an acre of cabernet sauvignon that yields one batch of 100 per cent Oak Knoll cabernet.
After starting the label on a whim 10 years ago, Becker has felt his way through the complexities of grapegrowing and winemaking with a combination of luck, friendly advice and course work at Napa Valley College. His perseverance and often naïve passion have produced seven vintages and, in February, won a double gold award at an international wine competition in Hong Kong.
Located just north of Napa on Darms Lane, Becker’s tiny vineyard sits on property purchased by his parents in 1971. He lived there while attending Vintage High School and remembers working with his father in the old fruit orchard planted behind the house.
After high school, Becker moved into Napa, married and worked for a time as a flight instructor and charter pilot. In 2001, he and his family moved back to the Darms Lane property to help take care of his aging parents. Becker and his wife, Tina, built a house of their own at the rear of the lot and decided to remove the 80-year-old fruit trees that had long since passed their prime. But what would they do with the bare land?
A friend who owned a grapevine nursery suggested he plant a vineyard, but Becker hesitated.
“It seemed like a nice idea but I didn’t know anything about grape vines, and wasn’t even particularly a wine drinker. I knew there was red and white wine but not much beyond that.”
His friend suggested planting cabernet sauvignon, a proven varietal for the Oak Knoll area. The friend had also just propagated some vineyard stock for a large winery and had 2,000 additional grafted vines left from the project.
“He said they’re cabernet clones 337 and 191, which didn’t make any sense at all to me. I said ‘that sounds like science fiction to me.’ Then he rattled off the rootstock and that didn’t make any sense either. But he said he had a thousand of each, so I said ‘OK.’”
Later, he found out that the rootstock was ideal for fertile valley soils like those in Oak Knoll and the cabernet clones were used extensively in some of the Napa Valley’s most elite vineyards.
With no viticulture training, Becker set about squeezing 2,000 vines into a one-acre plot.
“I didn’t know what I was doing but it wound up being four-by-four spacing — four feet wide (rows) and four feet in-between each vine. Later on, I found out that some of the fancy vineyards in France and other places plant them a meter by a meter, so that worked out.”
After the vines were planted, Becker began taking viticulture classes at Napa Valley College. He also learned that one of the wine industry’s heavy hitters shared a fence line with his fledgling vineyard. Respected viticulturist and consultant Ann Kraemer lives next door, where she has a small zinfandel vineyard of her own.
“I didn’t really know what she did but it turns out that she was traveling all over the world as a consultant, training other vineyard managers. I told her that if she would teach me what I can absorb I would do what I could to help with her vines when she is gone. So between Ann and the college … I actually began to figure it out. ”
As his cabernet vines grew, so did Becker’s knowledge and enthusiasm. He learned to do everything in the small vineyard by himself, sometimes improvising to save time and money. While he originally intended to just grow grapes and sell the fruit, as the vines began to produce, a friend suggested Becker should try making wine. Again, Becker was reluctant but then decided to enroll in a winemaking class at Napa College. In 2004, he experimented making wine in a picking bin.
“I just followed the instructions from school and it tasted like wine to me, but what do I know?” Becker said. “I took it to some real winemakers and they said ‘You know … it’s not too bad. You ought to think about making the wine.’”
One of those winemakers was Art Finkelstein, of Judd’s Hill, who encouraged Becker to pursue making his own wine.
“Art’s concern was that if I made the wine, could I market it,” said Becker, who at the time was working as a rain gutter salesman in Napa. “He figured if I could sell rain gutters, I could sell wine.”
First a reluctant grapzegrower, Becker now ventured head-first into winemaking, crafting 225 cases of his first vintage in 2005. He also continued his classes at Napa Valley College, following the full range of wine-related curriculum.
“The way the college has everything lined out,” he said, “I could take the viticulture classes as the plants grew, I could take the winemaking classes and at least comprehend how you do that and then there was a whole series of marketing classes.”
Becker’s first marketing challenge was coming up with a name for his new wine venture.
“I thought the only defining thing about the place is that it’s little,” he said. “So I thought we’ll just call it One Acre.”
Becker designed a simple black and white label “to stand out on the shelf.” In a nod to his love of flying, he included an image of a compass star with the exact coordinates of the One Acre vineyard. In early 2008, Becker hit the road with several cases of the 2005 One Acre Cabernet Sauvignon. Visiting wine shops throughout the Bay Area and Northern California, he eventually sold the entire lot. He also realized that he had to somehow expand his marketing program.
“I didn’t have the money to do any advertising,” he said, “but I’d heard about YouTube at a little seminar that the county had put on. I thought that if I could do something educational on YouTube, it would at least get some exposure.”
He bought a video camera and convinced his wife to film the first of several instructional videos. The clip was an eight-minute video on pruning, which, to date, has garnered more than 50,000 views from all over the world. Becker has since produced and uploaded 23 instructional videos that have racked up more than 164,000 YouTube views.
“I wanted to develop a rapport directly with people,” he said, noting that he continually shares advice with do-it-yourself wine makers viewing the videos. “I don’t have a tasting room or a winery. If my wine is just on a shelf or in a restaurant, I don’t get that interaction.”
Against the advice of friends and those in the wine industry, Becker also printed his cell phone number on the One Acre label.
“People will call me all the time,” he said. “They’ll be sitting in a restaurant and call me and say ‘Hey, this is Frank and we’re sitting at Bob’s Chop House on Lake Erie. We’re drinking your wine and we really like it.’ I’ll just talk to them for a while … it seems like a really big deal to them.”
After One Acre’s recent double-gold showing in Hong Kong, Becker may soon be hearing from plenty of Chinese wine enthusiasts. Having avoided wine competitions and critical review of his wine in the past, Becker finally allowed a friend to enter his 2008 vintage in “The China Best Value Wine and Spirits Awards” event Feb. 24. An international competition geared toward Chinese wine consumers, the event was judged by sommeliers and wine buyers familiar with the Chinese market. The One Acre entry was the only U.S. wine to win a double gold.
The international accolade has served as a vote of confidence for the accidental winemaker.
“It’s like making chicken soup or cookies or something,” Becker said in his understated way. “I guess it’s the right recipe so I’m not going to mess with it.”
He is expanding the One Acre concept, however. Becker recently leased an acre of land east of Yountville and has planted a new vineyard using cabernet cuttings from his Oak Knoll vines.
“I thought that it would be interesting to duplicate exactly the trellising, the spacing and actually take cuttings from this vineyard and grow the grapes at another location while making the wine the same way.”
Last year, he also made a One Acre zinfandel from Kraemer’s small vineyard next door.
“Now I’m like a two-flavor ice cream store,” he said. “I’ve got more than just chocolate now.”