A dedicated collection of winery owners and others would like to reverse local agricultural trends and grow more crops — at least a little.
No one envisions wholesale replacement of valuable cabernet vines with fields of wheat or even expensive specialty crops, but a lot of people would like to see more diversified agriculture in our valley.
Last Wednesday, some of those people gathered at Trefethen Vineyards to discuss the prospects for growing more food crops at vineyards.
In the 19th century, and even before 1966, Napa County produced many more crops than wine grapes. The Napa Mill and Bale Mill are two still-standing reminders of the time when wheat was a more important crop than grapes, and remnants of fruit and nut orchards attest to that as well.
Even in 1968, two years after Robert Mondavi built the first large winery after Prohibition ended, grapes only accounted for 26 percent of the county’s agricultural output. Last year, they were 99 percent.
That 1 percent includes a few farms like Forni, Brown, Walsh and Big Ranch Farms as well as a few herds of cattle, goat cheese and olive oil.
The prime mover in the effort, as well as a broader forum in April, is Napa County Agriculture Commissioner Dave Whitmer. He’s being supported by the Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Napa Valley Vintners and the Napa Local Food Group.
Jon Ruel, Trefethen’s director of viticulture and winemaking, hosted the discussion.
Ruel pointed out, “It’s an ag preserve, not a grape preserve. Perhaps more land should be planted to food.”
Trefethen, originally built as Eschol Winery in 1886 and revived by the Trefethen family in 1968, is itself a good example of what many envision.
Along with 440 acres of vines, the winery has extensive gardens of food crops including orchards and even bees.
The crops are used by the staff and family, both for visitor events as well as their own consumption. It also sells olive oil from the site.
That’s very common at Napa wineries. Interspersed among the 10 percent of the county planted to vines are many gardens, most serving similar purposes to feed visitors and provide an attractive benefit to workers – and winery owners.
A few wineries have gone farther and produce other crops for sale. Long Meadow Ranch sells produce and eggs at the St. Helena Farmers Market, at a farm stand and indirectly at its restaurant Farmstead in St. Helena as well as supplying many other top restaurants. They also raise beef.
Lee Hudson is so committed to the process that he bought the produce market at the Oxbow Market, is trying to organize a local distribution network, and delivers boxes of vegetables and fruit to subscribers. Hudson’s business partner in the Oxbow project is Andru Moshe, who manages day-to-day operations.
Many other wineries sell some of their products, including fruit from St. Supéry and a few other places, olive oil, honey, and prepared sauces and other foods. Dolores Cakebread sells excess produce from their extensive gardens at a modest farmstand on the winery property.
Likewise, many restaurants grow some of their own produce; a group of downtown chefs are tending the former Copia gardens and already harvesting the produce for meals.
Dolores Cakebread described the importance of her gardens. The winery has long espoused food with wine, offering its annual American Harvest Workshop to educate rising chefs and journalists about wine and food.
Part of this effort is the remarkable garden.
“Everyone wants to see the garden,” notes Dolores, a sentiment echoed by other wineries trying to differentiate themselves from Napa Valley’s 400 other producers.
Cindy Steinbeck-Newkirk came up from Paso Robles to discuss the program she helped initiate to grow food for the local food bank and other needy people. Last year, volunteers grew and donated 6,000 lb. of food; this year, the total may hit 10,000 pounds Much of the gardens are at winery and vineyard sites.
Craig Becker of Somerston Wine Co., which owns and farms a large operation with 200 acres of vineyards near Chiles Valley, says the vineyards amount to only 13 percent of the property. They also raise sheep, and are getting Angus beef, goats and chickens. They harvest 900 lambs per year.
Somerston is even establishing a store at its winetasting site in Yountville to sell the produce.
Ted Hall is perhaps the most committed to diversified agriculture, and his Long Meadow Ranch is as close to a self-sufficient fiefdom as you’ll find in Napa County. They raise vegetables on highway 29 in Rutherford as well as animals at the ranch along with olives – and grapes.
He believes that farming other crops makes sense financially. “I believe there’s an economic incentive to rethink planting. We’re not philanthropists for foodies.”
Hall points out that not all the land in Napa Valley is suitable for grapes, and some has been ill-planted because of demand for Napa Valley wine. “People have tried to plant every acre, but they’ve learned some areas don’t make sense for vines,” he says.
He notes that the water in parts of Napa County contain boron, tough on grapes but fine for olives and some other crops.
Likewise, some of the dense clay soils aren’t ideal for grape vines, making them excessively vigorous.
He also observed that grape growing is very seasonal, and can complement other crops.
Olives, for example, are harvested after the grape harvest ends, providing additional work. “This reduces turnover and seasonal layoffs.”
He’s also found that employees appreciate rotating jobs — as well as the produce itself.
As a former management consultant, Hall outlined the numbers: “You can typically harvest 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of vegetables per acre. At an average whole price of $1, that’s $10,000 to $20,000 per acre. Sell it at retail and that’s doubled, making it comparable to Napa Cabernet grapes.”
He acknowledges the problem of getting produce to market since the former distribution networks have disappeared.
In addition to his farmstand sales and his restaurant, he focuses on institutions and restaurants, providing products on demand. “Sell it before you grow it, just like grapes,” he says.
It also spreads the costs. “We can use the same tractors and bins for two crops. That effectively cuts the costs in half.”
In summary, Hall says, “There are thousands of skilled farmers and workers in Napa Valley; they’re called growers. They can grow other crops, too.”
Along with issues of distribution, a few attendees at the meeting questioned some apparent disconnect between county departments over local food production.
While Whitmer’s office is clearly encouraging local food production, some voices claimed that the local health officials stopped restaurants from serving their own produce and otherwise make it difficult to sell food that didn’t come though the usual channels.
In particular, one cited threats to Mustards Restaurant garden, and Connie Green, who sells foraged mushrooms, expressed her frustration in trying to get approvals to do so.
Napa County Director of Environmental Management Steve Lederer addressed that topic, saying the state mandates that food sold or served must come from “approved sources” without clear definition of what approval involves.
He says they’ve worked with Whitmer’s office to develop an approval process for restaurant gardens as part of regular health inspections, and have processes in place for selling other crops through the ag department.
Another question was wineries selling their produce.
County planning director Hillary Gitelman noted that any farm can sell produce it produces on that property; that doesn’t mean a winery in Rutherford can sell produce from its vineyard in Carneros at the winery, though it can at the site. “We don’t want creative entrepreneurs to exploit the situation,” she said, but says she’s happy to look into the situation.
Lederer also encouraged people to raise issues they encounter. To provide a voice, and to encourage more diversity in farming, county supervisors have approved forming a local food council. That effort is now in process.