Andy Beckstoffer - Napa Valley
Andy Beckstoffer and his family are firmly rooted in the soil of California wine country. After more than 30 years of cultivating Napa Valley grapes, they continue to play an integral role in the evolution of the industry, bringing their viticulture expertise and a passion for premium wine grapes to Mendocino and, more recently, Lake County.
A native of Richmond, Virginia, Andy attended Virginia Tech on a football scholarship and earned a degree in engineering. Service in the Army brought Beckstoffer to San Francisco, and 3,000 miles closer to winemaking in the nearby Napa Valley. While he returned to the East Coast to earn an M.B.A. from Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business, California was not forgotten. Upon graduating in 1966, he was recruited by Heublein, Inc. as an analyst in production and finance. At Heublein, the young analyst quickly made his mark by convincing them that the California wine business promised long-term growth. "All the studies we prepared clearly showed where the premium wine market was headed," recalled Beckstoffer. "Heublein was one of the first to discover the super-premium wine potential."
To get them in the wine game, Beckstoffer and his team helped Heublein negotiate the purchase of a majority interest in United Vintners, a wine producer that owned Inglenook, one of Napa Valley's oldest premium wineries. In December 1968, a few months after the sale, a Forbes magazine article reported table wine sales had tripled since 1950 and current wine sales were running 20 percent ahead of the previous year. "The potential for growth is thus breathtaking," observed the investment publication. Beckstoffer was just 28 years old. He was appointed vice president of planning for United Vintners, and a year later negotiated the purchase of Beaulieu Vineyard, the most famous Napa Valley winery at the time. In 1970, Heublein formed a small subsidiary, Vinifera Development Company, to oversee an increased supply of premium grapes to Beaulieu and Inglenook. On the career fast track, Beckstoffer was named president of the new company.
Even with the trend toward premium grapes, conditions in Napa Valley were not much better than those in the San Joaquin Valley. Old-time farmers, who had long grown varieties like gamay and carignane, saw no reason for change. Beckstoffer knew that for Vinifera to be successful, they would have to focus on vineyard technology and increased premium grape production. They would have to gain control of the land, remove the old varieties, and replant. With this in mind, he enlisted the expertise of Beaulieu Winemaker Andr Tchelistcheff, a plant scientist named Bob Steinhauer (who went on to become Beringer Vineyard's senior vice president of vineyard operations), vineyard manager Steve Yates (currently Kendall-Jackson's top farmer), and other innovative viticulturists. From 1970 to 1974, Vinifera Development planted 500 acres of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley. An impressive figure, when one considers that in 1969, there were only 682 acres planted to Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Production also climbed rapidly, from 1,500 tons in 1970 to 2,250 tons in 1973.
A willingness to learn grapegrowing and vineyard farming from the ground up, engineering skills, and the capacity for creative risk-taking, enabled Beckstoffer to take the lead on innovations that are now standard practice among growers. These same qualities are also the stuff of great entrepreneurs, and Beckstoffer would soon have the chance to prove it. By 1973, Heublein was ready to sell Vinifera, and Beckstoffer was ready to buy. At the age of 33, he devised a leveraged buyout, in which Heublein sold him the vineyard company, along with 1,200 acres he had acquired for them in Napa and Mendocino. He put up $7,500, which was all the money he had, and financed the rest with the help of Heublein and Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance. At the time, Vinifera was valued at $3 million. It was a true symbiotic relationship: they needed the grapes and he needed the money.
The following years were turbulent ones for the California wine industry. Grape prices plummeted, but the businessman in Beckstoffer stayed focused on the long-term prospects for grapegrowers. "Growers were not getting their fair share of the profits for the risks taken and their investment," he declared. Though many thought grape prices had been high at times, the prices for vineyard trellising, grape stakes, new equipment and other costs, had escalated faster than the price paid for a ton of grapes. The grower was in a declining income situation. But that was about to change.
Compelled to address the economic, social and political concerns of grapegrowers in a more significant way, Beckstoffer became a founding director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association (NVGGA) in 1975. A year later, as the Association's president, he brought forth the revolutionary idea of basing the price of a ton of grapes on the future price of a bottle of wine. Under his bottle price formula, wineries projected the retail price of the finished wine and agreed to a standard multiple for each grape variety. If a winery planned to price a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon at $10, and the standard multiple of that grape was 100, the price of the grape would be $1,000 a ton. Mondavi and Christian Brothers, two of the most influential wineries of the time, quickly adopted the formula, and wine grapes were elevated from a commodity to a specialty item.
In 1994, Andy was a founding member of The Rutherford Dust Society, and served as its initial President. He remains on the Society's Board of Directors, and is the current President. Beckstoffer was bringing basic business principles to agriculture. As a leader in modern viticulture practices, many of his ideas, from irrigation to vine spacing, were considered radical when introduced. Time has proven them beneficial from a farming and financial standpoint. After years of rapid expansion in the wine industry, and little control over what constituted a winery, the NVGGA made a recommendation to require that 75 percent of the wine made in the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve be from Napa Valley grapes. In 1989, the 75 percent rule was established, and Beckstoffer was hailed by the NVGGA as the proposal's "chief architect." Beckstoffer and his namesake Vineyards continue to influence California viticulture. As a leader in the wine and grape industry, his latest endeavor is to bring the technology, business acumen, and agricultural sensitivity he honed for 30 years in the Napa Valley to Mendocino and Lake Counties.
Andy Beckstoffer and Betty, his wife of 45 years, share more than their viticulture expertise with others. In 2000, they were jointly awarded "Citizens of the Year" by the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce for their dedication and active participation in the community. In September of 2005, Andy was awarded the Grower of the Year award by COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, during its annual Jefferson Bacchus Gala & Auction. And most recently, in May of 2006, the Napa Grapegrowers Association awarded its first Grower of the Year Award to Andy.