Andrew Jefford Expresses Concern: Farming’s Future Is At Risk Without the Younger Generation

By | 19 April 2024

‘I worry about the younger generation,’ Gallica owner and winemaker Rosemary Cakebread confessed. ‘It’s tough for young individuals in Napa to afford a house, much less a vineyard.’

‘Should you possess any desire to work independently, you’ll require family investments or supporters. Without the incoming generation, we risk losing traditional agriculture.’ She has a point. When big-money investors from hedge funds and the tech industry consume the remaining vineyards, Napa evolves into an upscale product industry. Which underscores the significance of the newly-planted vines at the ridge’s end.

Napa red wines are stunningly appealing. They endure any degree of scrutiny; they mature beautifully; and uniquely among fine wines – they are universally approachable and inviting. Given the area’s wealth (owing to neighboring Silicon Valley), land costs have skyrocketed – amounting to $700,000 per acre for premium farmland in 2023. This equates to about €1.6m per hectare, slightly more than Margaux, and a bit less than St-Julien according to Vineyards Bordeaux’s report from August 2023.

‘Napa has delivered some of the finest wines worldwide,’ Julia van der Vink, the vine grower who planted those vines at the ridge’s end with her partner, winemaker Rob Black, responded. ‘However, the culture enveloping these wines is fading. We started from scratch. Everybody told us it was hopeless. But if we surrender to pessimism, the upcoming generation misses their chance. I cannot comprehend why the next generation should have to abandon this place. We hoped to maintain our presence here. My aspiration is that we will be working side-by-side with others within a decade.’

The vineyard named Aerika is a product of the joint effort of 18 angel investors, including six from the UK, who believed in and threw their weight behind a proprietor-run vineyard. This arrangement allows for Julia and Rob to retain most of the ownership. With a financial expert in their corner in Julia’s brother Nick, they were able to neatly tie the complex acquisition together. The vineyard spans a whopping 50 acres, 20 of which will be cultivated. It used to belong to Al Baxter’s Veedercrest Vineyards, a name noted for the 1972 Veedercrest Chardonnay that was featured in Steven Spurrier’s groundbreaking 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting event.

Julia and Rob seem to have what it takes to ‘upend the large-scale agricultural hierarchy’ here. Julia is a Harvard alumna who, after her stints with Mac Forbes in Australia and Mullineux in South Africa, recently completed eight years as a vineyard manager at Harlan in Napa. Rob, a global trotter from New Zealand, has worked in Spain, Oregon and Burgundy. He was a winemaker at Screaming Eagle from years 2014 to 2023. Although Aerika has not yet begun bottling, I have had the pleasure of tasting samples from the barrels that house their sparklingly lively Mount Veeder Cabernet from Wildwoods. This tantalizing liquor is made from produce of vineyards only miles to the north in addition to a fragrant Cabernet blend from the nearby Wing Canyon Vineyard. I am confident that the finished products from Aerika will be delightful.

The ‘problem of finance’ is not limited to Napa. France’s official organizations known as SAFERs have the authority to interfere in agricultural and rural property transactions with the intention to assist younger farmers and vintners gain a footing. But rising property prices in Burgundy and Bordeaux’s premier locations continue to lock out young entrants who are not inheriting land. Will Julia and Rob’s ‘little pirate ship’ make it through and inspire others? Here’s hoping it does.

I have always been a great fan of Rosemary Cakebread’s Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon and Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, both being sweet and expressive. However, it was during this visit that I had my first taste of her Grenache: the 2021 from the Rossi Ranch in Sonoma. The light, sneaky red holds her signature traits of finesse, elegance, understatement, and purity. It has a smooth layer of strawberry, but the purring tannins (fermented with 25% whole clusters) also bring a savory echo.

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