Beckstoffer to Redevelop To Kalon Vineyard

Grower asks winery customers to cut back during multi-phase transition of Napa property

by Jim Gordon
wine to kalon vineyard beckstoffer
Beckstoffer's To Kalon Vineyard includes blocks A through F.
Napa, Calif.—Replanting a high-quality wine grape vineyard is rarely an easy decision for the owner. The land will be out of production for at least two years, so the loss of revenue is absolute, and the cost to redevelop is significant: about $30,000 per acre in prime parts of Napa Valley.

The decision is even tougher when the property is a vineyard-designate for 20 wineries that pay an average of $20,000 per ton for their portions of the site’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc crop, which they use to create wines that command cult-wine prices of $150 per bottle and up.

When the vines go away, not only does the grower lose $40,000 to $60,000 per acre in sales, the vineyard’s winery clients could also stand to lose revenue. This is exactly the situation Beckstoffer Vineyards is managing now, as company founder Andy Beckstoffer plans to redevelop the 83-acre Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville, Calif., starting with 12 acres in 2018.

“It’s ironic: Here we have this super valuable asset, and now we’re going to destroy it,” Beckstoffer said. “We want to be clear that there’s nothing wrong with the fruit at To Kalon. We’ve had no complaints about the quality.” He said, however, that the yield in the first section slated for redevelopment decreased from 2.7 tons per acre in 2014 to 2 tons in 2015 and 1.7 tons in 2016.

Winery customers Schrader, TOR, Alpha Omega, Hobbs and Carter, to mention a few, often receive critics’ scores in the high 90s for their To Kalon bottlings, and they manage waiting lists of customers eager to buy them. Robert Mondavi Winery also designates wines as To Kalon from its adjoining property. Both own pieces of one original To Kalon vineyard believed to have been first planted to vines in 1868.

wine to kalon vineyard beckstoffer
Beckstoffer hopes winery clients who typically obtain fruit from Blocks A2 and B2 will get two-thirds of their normal allotment from other blocks.
Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard blocks are lettered from A through F, and although these letters don’t appear on labels, many of the winemakers are quite attached to the blocks, sub-blocks and rows for which they contract. The first phase of redevelopment next year affects block A2, which fronts Highway 29, and almost half of block B2. Four subsequent phases from 2021 through 2028 will convert the remaining blocks, per the plan.

The immediate issue is how to supply the currently contracted wineries with enough fruit to keep their brands going during the disruption. “We don’t want to put anybody out of business,” Beckstoffer said. “We’re asking wineries in adjoining blocks to give up some of theirs. Some of the winemakers exclusively use To Kalon grapes, so where else would they turn?”

Beckstoffer intends that each winery customer will get at least two-thirds the tonnage of grapes they have contracted. To accomplish that he is asking the wineries that buy from other blocks of To Kalon to give up some of their tonnage to help the A2/B2 buyers in the interim. When A2 comes back into production, and the other blocks get pulled, those A2 wineries would be asked to give up some of their supply in return.

“Everyone has agreed to play,” said company president David Beckstoffer, which means all clients in the vineyard today have agreed to restructure their contracts to allow the first phase of redevelopment. “But figuring out the rows and the sections and who is going to give up what is like a Tetris game.”

Andy Beckstoffer said he was concerned with easing the wineries’ losses as much as possible while exercising his contractual right to replant. “They built their businesses on our fruit and our name, and we have some responsibility there to protect both their business and our name.”

Previously planted in 1994
Beckstoffer Vineyards farms 3,600 acres of grapes in Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, including 1,000 acres in Napa Valley. Beckstoffer bought the To Kalon acreage in 1993 and planted it in sections between 1994 and 1997. Why is replanting necessary after 23 years?

Andy Beckstoffer calls it a normal replanting cycle for this part of Napa Valley, where grape cultivation is intense and vine pests and diseases can move relatively easily from one property to the next. He admitted that his team “hustled” to plant the newly bought property in 1994 and may not have gotten the best vine stock on short notice from nurseries that had plenty of other demand.

Viticulturist Dave Michul, Beckstoffer’s general manager for Napa, said no one specific problem is dragging the vine yields down. The vine ailments of Eutypa, Botryosphaeria, Esca and fanleaf virus all are contributing to the decline in health. “Over time, they take their toll,” he said. 

wine to kalon vineyard beckstoffer
The graph represents percentage of linear feet of potential cordons that are not fruit-bearing.
His team calculated that 7.5% of the A2 block is “non-producing wood,” indicating the percentage of linear feet of potential cordons that are not fruit-bearing. More than 9% of the B2 block is non-producing. In contrast, the healthiest sections of Beckstoffer To Kalon have 3.5% non-producing wood and a young, disease-free vineyard might be less than 1% non-producing.

The upside is that the replanting project presents an opportunity to improve the suitability of the vines and the vineyard design. Row direction, trellis system and rootstocks will be changed, but not the Cabernet Sauvignon clones. New vines in the first phase of redevelopment will again be Clone 4, “but a cleaned up version, 4.1,” Michul said.

The current rootstock is 039-16, chosen to manage the spread of fanleaf virus by nematodes, which have long been a problem in the Napa Valley. The first section of replants will use a newly bred rootstock, GRN-3, developed by Dr. Andy Walker at the University of California, Davis, and reputed to have strong resistance to nematodes, good drought tolerance and moderate vigor.

Vines will be vertically trained on a bilateral cordon, as currently, but the row direction will shift 90° and be oriented 55° northeast by southwest, and perpendicular to the highway. The sun will shine directly down the rows at 2:30 p.m. in mid-August, so the vine canopy will give the most protection to grape clusters during the hottest period of the day.

Vine spacing will transition from the current 8 feet between rows and 7 feet between vines, and some rows that are 6 by 7 feet to 7 by 5 feet in the 2018 replant. This will increase the number of vines per acre to 1,244 and reduce the linear feet of each vine from 7 to 5. Cross arms will be added to the trellis to create a more open canopy.

“This is preventive,” said David Beckstoffer. “We don’t want to do it, but we’ve got to do it, so we’re going to do everything we can to make it better.”

Posted on 04.15.2017 - 07:50:06 PST
This situation encapsulates many of the advances that have been made in viticulture in the past decade. From what I've seen with trunk diseases and vine longevity, other steps to mitigate them long term includes closer in-row vine spacing,cane pruning,two-plane gobelets, double trunks, etc. However, the cluster-to-cluster uniformity achieved with young (2 to 20+ yrs) cordons in this climate is perhaps a more compelling factor.