Ken Nerlove is among the Napa County farmers who want to host tastings for their wines on their farms, but without building elegant wineries.
Nerlove since 1983 has grown grapes in the south county hills overlooking distant wetlands. He and his daughter Elise make Elkhorn Peak wines offsite and envision serving samples on the family property, perhaps at a picnic table near vineyards.
This would be mom-and-pop Napa wine country, with the million-dollar views but without the multi-million dollar buildings.
“We’re growers first,” Elise Nerlove said on a recent day at her farm. “We know how to talk about vineyards and the different seasons. It’s nice to be able to drink a glass of wine with someone sitting right next to the vine that the berry grew on.”
Such tastings are illegal in unincorporated Napa County. Tastings are allowed at wineries, not at farms without wineries.
The group Save the Family Farms wants to change this. Members want to create a way for farmers making wines at custom crush facilities to hold tastings they say are vital to increasing wine club membership and keeping their businesses alive.
County supervisors see possible sticking points, among them assuring that someone doesn’t use county-approved family farm tastings as a backdoor to something bigger. At their Oct. 15 meeting, they directed staff to work with Save the Family Farms members on addressing such challenges.
“I think we’ve got to have a conversation,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.
“We don’t want to get that big”
Ken Nerlove said his family is “kind of pioneers” in planting vineyards in the Jameson Canyon area of Napa County, given that 1983 starting date. The Nerloves started making wine in 1992.
Today, the 28-acre property has a home, barn, 8 acres of vineyards—and no winery equipped with tasting room. But tasters could go to the property, sit at the picnic table and chat with the Nerloves.
Not everyone wants to drive Upvalley, stand in line and pay a $100 tasting fee, though a lot of visitors do, Ken Nerlove said. Farmers want to diversify the visitor experience, he said.
“We have to allow the visitor the option of experiencing an intimate, one-on-one tasting in the vineyard,” Ken Nerlove said as he sat near his Pinot Noir grapevines.
He sees something else at stake.
“I want to pass this property off to my children, my daughter, second generation,” Ken Nerlove said. “We want to maintain the farmer in the Napa Valley. But if we can’t make that happen economically, then it won’t happen.”
Building a winery isn’t an option, Ken Nerlove said, not for the 1,000 cases maximum that Elkhorn Peak produces annually. He’d never recoup the investment.
“It’s a poor business decision,” Ken Nerlove said.
Bill Wolf started Save the Family Farms three years ago. It has 11 members on its executive committee.
He owns 13 acres in Gordon Valley about three miles from the Solano County line. One could reach his farm driving through Solano County’s Suisun Valley wine region or Napa County’s Wooden Valley area.
Wolf obtained approval from the Napa County Planning Commission in 2011 to build a 30,000-gallon winery. He obtained permission to hold two private tours daily with a total of 16 guests. The use permit is still good.
He doesn’t want to move forward. As he looked further into the matter, he realized spending $5 million or so to build a winery doesn’t make sense.
“We don’t want to be that big,” Wolf said.
When he received his permit from the county, the person at the desk congratulated him on being able to hold tastings. He took that literally and began holding tastings without the winery. He was caught and fined, Wolf said.
He reacted by starting Save the Family Farms.
“That’s when I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is wrong,’” Wolf said.
Hayley Hossfeld’s parents bought Soda Canyon property in 1981 as newlyweds. Her father wanted to plant kiwis, but instead in the Napa County tradition opted for 20 acres of grapes. The family used dynamite to put in plants amid bedrock.
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After Hossfeld’s father died in 2009, she and two sisters faced a decision. Her mother told them they’d better get interested in the grape business if they wanted the family to keep the land.
Hossfeld has a master’s degree in winemaking. She was ready to release her first wine under the Hossfeld label in 2017, only to have the property hit by the Atlas fire. Two homes, a barn and three-quarters of the vineyard burned.
“That was a huge wrench in the plans,” Hossfeld said.
The family persevered and replanted. People can buy 2016 Hossfeld Coliseum Block Cabernet Sauvignon, with its aromas of black currant, chocolate and baking spices – if they know it exists.
“Really, it’s a website I sell my wine through,” Hossfeld said. “I don’t really have an avenue for getting new customers.”
Farming, making wine and then trying to find customers by going to tastings in San Francisco or on the bed & breakfast circuit is exhausting. It would be great to go out the front door, host people for tastings and show them the property, she said.
Save the Family Farms members say that the inability to hold tastings and stay profitable could results in small farmers selling to corporations. They say they need to offer potential customers experiences at their farms to survive.
“People come to Napa Valley for the wine, but they take home the experiences,” Ken Nerlove said.
Wolf said perhaps 500 farmers might be eligible to hold tastings under the Save the Family Farms proposals, though that is a rough estimate.
“But you’re going to find the majority of them probably are not going to want to do it,” he said. “Ken’s an exception. Does he want to bring people on his own property and in his own home and in his backyard...? You start losing your privacy and everything else.”
“Salable to my heart”
Save the Family Farms stepped into the public spotlight in December 2018 when members pleaded with the Napa County Board of Supervisors to remember the family farm. On Oct 15, supervisors considered what to do about the group’s wine-tasting proposals.
Among the ideas presented to the county are the farm must be at least 5 acres and include a vineyard of at least 3 acres, owners must live on the property, 75 percent of grapes must be estate grown, annual wine production can’t top 10,000 gallons and visitation must be limited to a maximum of five vehicles daily. Farmers would have to obtain a county permit.
Pedroza said he wants people to be able to realize opportunities for themselves and their families. But, he said, the Board of Supervisors must discuss certain aspects of the Save the Family Farms proposals.
He mentioned concerns about allowing farmers without wineries to hold tastings while others spent significant amounts of money building wineries for that privilege.
Supervisor Diane Dillon wanted to know the thresholds that would require applicants to comply with state food laws, state water laws and Americans With Disabilities Act laws and other regulations.
“I’m concerned there are misconceptions out there about these things,” Dillon said.
Another aspect is whether the county can put detailed criteria on the farm tasting permits, Dillon said. As an example, she mentioned not having employees because these are supposed to be family operations.
She also wants to allay fears that small family operations approved by the county wouldn’t in five years balloon into something bigger.
“If the real goal is protecting small family farms, is it possible to have that as part of that permit process saying, ‘You’re going to stay a small family farm,’ ” Dillon said.
County staff will work with the Save the Family Farms group to see if proposals might come to the Board of Supervisors at some point.
“It’s very salable on my heart to do this,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said. “But then I know that there are – as Supervisor Dillon said – there are a lot of things out there that will make it trying. Let’s get those out and let’s see what we really have.”
Save the Family Farms will also try to convince the wine industry to support the plan or, at the very least, not oppose it.
Napa Valley Vintners has about 550 members. Michelle Novi of the group said the appropriate tasks force and committee have yet to take a position on the Save the Family Farms proposals or decide whether to take a position.
Save the Family Farms wants more farmers to join its ranks. It wants the general public to speak up in its behalf.