Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Top 10 Organic Vineyards in Napa: By Size

This week is publishing the top 100 vineyards in Napa, listing the top 10 (free online) and the top 100 (in its print edition). In response, I thought I'd publish a list of the top 10 organic vineyards in Napa (scroll down) to bring attention to this under recognized category of good neighbors.

The list, shows the influence of the top 100 vineyard owners who collectively own or lease 28,000 acres of Napa's 43,000 acres of wine grape vineyards. That's 65 percent of the county's vines.

Of the top 10, Big Wine - Treasury, Silverado, Constellation and E&J Gallo - together owns or leases 19 percent of the valley's vines.

In comparison, the organic vines are not owned by major corporations. In each case, the owners reside on or near the vineyard property.

Many of the organically grown wines made from these vines represent the highest rated in Napa. Heitz is world famous for its Martha's Vineyard Cabernet (ccertified organic by its owners). Wine critic Robert Parker awarded one of Hall's single vineyard, organically grown wines with a 100 point rating. Similarly, Inglenook, Frog's Leap, and others have won top awards internationally.

Several of the families - Pelissa, Bartolucci, Heitz, Grgich - trace the winemaking activities in their families back several generations. Some hit the land rush at the right time - Sinskey is one - and translated their values into organic farming. Others who achieved great success in business - Ted Hall, Eric Yuan, the Halls - also saw the wisdom of organic practices.


Corporate (Australian)
1. Treasury Wine Estates - 410 owned / 3,416 acres
Treasury Wine Estate (based in Australia) sources from 3,416 acres (owns only 12% of what it sources from). That means it owns 410 acres. Treasury is one of the largest wine companies in the world, with $2 billion in revenues worldwide. In Napa it owns Acacia, Beaulieu, Beringer, Etude, Hewitt, Provenance, and Stags' Leap Estate (not to be confused with the more well known Stag's Leap Winery on Highway 29 [which is owned by Antinori and Chateau Ste. Michelle]).

2. TIAA/Silverado - 2,500 acres
TIAA  (a Fortune 100 financial company based in Manhattan) owns Silverado Investment Management Co, which is better known name locally. TIAA is a pension investment fund.

Local Family
3. Bayview/Laird Family - 1,811 acres
Bayview/Laird Family is the largest enterprise owned by a Napa family. Unfortunately they are also the most likely to use the most dangerous, old school pesticides, according to my analysis of Pesticide Use Report, using mancozeb, for instance, long after everyone else in the county stopped using it. (Remarkably, a few old school Italian families in Sonoma continue to use it, as well, making Sonoma a strange anomaly compared to the rest of the state.)

4. Constellation Brands - 465 owned / 1,330 acres
The giant Fortune 500 company is most famous for its takeover of Mondavi estate and brand in 2004, which marked a sad day in Napa's dynastic history.

5. E&J Gallo - 1,123 acres
Despite getting a late start in acquiring Napa acreage, E&J Gallo is now the fifth largest owner in Napa, doubling its holdings this year with the acquisition of Stagecoach Vineyards in Pritchard Hill and Atlas Peak (the latter suffered heavy losses in the fires this year) in a deal that staggered locals. Gallo paid $180,000 for the 1,300 acre Stagecoach parcel, of which 600 acres are planted. The price per acre is $300,000.

Gina Gallo also owns the former Robert Mondavi home in Napa.

Local Family 
6. Beckstoffer Vineyards - 1,015 acres
Andy Beckstoffer's family fortunes began to rise when he was sent to work for Heublein on the destruction of Inglenook's prized vineyards, which Heublein acquired. In 1970 when Heublein decided to abandon the wine business in Napa, Beckstoffer began buying vineyards. Today his family owns land in Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

Local Family
7. Jackson Family Wines - 500 acre / 690 acres
This is the only Sonoma based company to make the top 10 Napa list. It owns Cardinale and Freemark Abbey.

Italian Family
8. Antinori California - 561 acres
Foresighted enough to see the potential of Atlas Peak long before others did, Antinori has a spectacular parcel here at the top of Soda Canyon Road. Miraculously, its mountain estate winery survived this year's fires. The company is a private firm headed by the Antinori family.

Corporate (French) 
9. St. Supery (Chanel) - 535 acres
The Skalli family started the winery, selling it to Chanel in 2015. Chanel itself owns 1587 acres (so one wonders why it didn't rank #4 on this list).

Local Family/Organic
10. Yount Mill Vineyards/Napa Wine Company - 500 acres (according to my records it's 557 acres)
Owned and run by a Napa family whose presence dates back more than 100 years, this iconic organic growers sells 88% of its grapes to Napa wineries. Prized for their quality, these sold off grapes are blended away in wines that are primarily made from conventionally grown grapes. However, the family vinifies 12% of their grapes - from historic blocks - into three family owned labels - Elizabeth Rose, Oakville Winery, and Ghost Block.


Say the words "organic" and "Napa" and people may give you a funny look. Huh? Those two things go together? But the truth is that 7-8 percent of Napa's vines are certified organic, which shows the commitment to the highest level of eco-friendly practices of the families - yes, all of these wineries are family run - to making great wine from vines that are nourished and tended without the use of highly toxic chemicals.

(Although experts estimate that as many an equal number of Napa growers are organic in their practices, these other growers chose not to be certified.) In all likelihood, Napa has about the same acres of organic vineyards as it's more well known organic neighbor Mendocino County.

Just because a winery is listed below, do not assume that all of their wines are organically grown. Many make and sell wine from other vineyards as well as their own. Starred wineries - * - are 100 percent organic estate.

Local Family
1. Yount Mill Vineyards/Napa Wine Company - 557 acres*
The Pelissa family's holdings were purchased during Prohibition when land was cheap. Their extensive acreage in Yountville and Oakville is sometimes locally referred to as the "Pelissa Hills." Their commitment to organic farming is based on family values and elders' concerns about the purity of the wells on the family property where many of the Pelissa descendants still live.

The most famous (and visible) of their vineyards is Ghost Block, located just north of Yountville on the east side of Highway 29, across the street from Mustards Grill. The family also owns Napa Wine Cellars, one of the county's most historic wineries (it dates back to 1877), which is now the family's custom crush facility.

At the peak of the Napa cult wine scene, three of the custom crush wines produced here were "cult wines." Organic family-owned vintners Volker Eisele Family Estate*, Pavi and Voss* (the last also sources its organic grapes from Yount Mill owned vineyards) continue to make their wines here.

Local Family
2. Grgich Hills Estate - 336 acres*
The Grgich and Hills families came together in the late 1970s to found their very successful winery on Highway 29. Today they own five separate parcels spread out from Carneros in the south (the best place to grow their Chardonnay) to Rutherford and American Canyon and up to Calistoga where they tend an historic Zinfandel vineyard.

Croatian born Mike Grgich may be the most famous name in American wine history, immortalized in a Smithsonian exhibit as the immigrant winemaker extraordinaire. Today his Croatian born nephew Ivo Jeramaz runs the winery with the help of Grgich's daughter Violet Grgich.

UPDATE March 12, 2019: This list should now reflect that HEITZ has 425 acres of certified organic vineyards and ranks #1 in Napa in organic acreage.
Local Family
3. Heitz Wine Cellars - 275 acres (out of 375 acres total)
The Heitz family has one of the deepest family histories in Napa, dating back to 1963 when there were only 12 wineries in Napa. Stag's Leap Winery founder Warren Winarski called founder Joe Heitz Napa's first artisanal winemaker. Today Heitz's descendants run the winery, making excellent Cabernet (the Trailside is all from certified vines, although they don't market it as such) as well as the world famous Martha's Vineyard Cab (and an excellent estate grown Sauvignon Blanc, rose and Grignolino).

Both the Grgich and Heitz families got a big boosts from the 1976 Paris tasting in which both made wines that placed highly in the competition pitting California wines against France's finest.

Local Family
4. Inglenook - 230 acres*
The grand dame of historic wineries in Napa, Inglenook is the jewel in the crown. Famous today for being owned by the Coppola family - who bought the place in 1972 - insiders know its real fame is due to its historic origins as the first fine wine winery established in Napa by Gustav Niebaum in 1879. Niebaum wanted to move to Europe to have a world class winery, but his wife preferred to remain in the Bay Area, so voila - Inglenook was born. The Coppolas reunited the winery, its original name and vineyards over their 40+ years of ownership. All of its wines come solely from the estate, which was certified organic in 1994.

5. Hall - 211 acres
Compared to the other wineries on this list, Hall is a relative newcomer in Napa, using the fortunes of its owners' successful real estate business in Texas to buy into two prime small vineyard sites in Rutherford and St. Helena. Here they established two modern wineries bedecked with cutting edge artworks to attract visitors. Hall also bought extensive acreage in the more distant (and "affordable") areas of Napa - Pope Valley and Atlas Peak. (All of these grapes are blended with non-organic grapes purchased from other growers.)

Hall has recently been the target of anti-development residents who oppose Walt Ranch, a vast new development on Napa's east side, where the Halls have received approval to cut down 17,000 trees on a 2,300 acre property to create a 209 acre vineyard and subdivide the land into future ranchettes. The Sierra Club and other groups are contesting the county's approval.

Local Family
6. Robert Sinskey Vineyards - 176 acres*
Dentist and Pinot Noir wine lover Robert M. Sinskey had the good sense to buy acres of vines in the Carneros in the 1970's. Today his son Robert Sinskey farms these lands organically - with the help of a large herd of sheep. The winery is best known for Pinot Noir and for growing what few in Napa grow - Alsatian varietals.

Local Family
7. Frog's Leap - 130 acres* / 200 acres
Ask around in Napa about organics, and the winery you're most likely to hear mentioned first is Frog's Leap, which has been the poster child for organics for decades with its organic vines, fruit orchard, chickens and vegetable garden. It was certified in 1989. It's the second largest producer of organically grown wines in Napa (after Grgich Hills, which ranks first), with a widely distributed Sauvignon Blanc and award-winning Cabernet. The winery owns 130 acres  of vines and sources from additional growers under long term contracts. It recently purchased an historic property - the Rossi Ranch - which has some of Napa's oldest heritage vines and makes small lots of old vine wine from these and other old vines it farms.

Local Family
8. Madonna Estate - 140 acres*
The Bartolucci family can lay claim to being among the oldest wine families left in Napa (along with the Pelissa's), establishing their first vineyards here in 1922 in Oakville. During the boom in Napa land prices in the late 1960's, the family sold their Oakville properties in 1970 and moved south to Carneros, buying 160 acres near San Pablo Bay. Today they dry farm their 140 acres of organic vines in Carneros, growing primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their family history is on display in the tasting room on the well trafficked leg of Highway 12 between Napa and Sonoma.

Private Owner (Chinese)
9. Acumen - 116 acres
The successful Chinese businessman Eric Yuan embarked on a Napa winery project with the help of Stephen Rea, hiring an A list of viticulturists - Steve Matthiason and Garrett Buckland - to convert two large parcels of Stagecoach Vineyards on Atlas Peak to organic certification, completed in 2017. The group named the winery Acumen and opened an elegant, stylish downtown Napa tasting room and art gallery (featuring painted portraits of vineyard workers) this summer.

NOTE: A long fight by local residents against Acumen's plans to develop a winery and tasting room on the site, at the top of Soda Canyon Road, was defeated several months before the Sept. 2017 fires swept through Atlas Peak.

Local Family 
10.  Long Meadow Ranch - 78 acres 
Is there a family more dedicated to organic agriculture overall in Napa than the Ted Hall family? Raised by a mother who was an organic gardener, Ted, a very successful business consultant, believes in the viability of a vertically integrated business. This has led the family - including his wife Laddie and son Christopher - to create and integrate a hillside estate and a valley floor estate in Napa along with a St. Helena farm to table restaurant and winery tasting room. In search of cool climate Pinot Noir to add to their portfolio, the winery recently purchased 69 acres of vines in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, converting it to organic certification, which makes them that region's largest organic producer - a commendable act in a region where conventional farming predominates.

UPDATE March 12, 2019: 
11. Honorable Mention: ZD Wines
ZD Wines - 37 acres / 213 acres
ZD Wines has successfully converted its growers with 213 acres of vines to organic certification.

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