Save the Family Farms Napa Valley is not a cliché or an advertising tagline for an expanding group of small winemakers. It’s a serious attempt to keep legacy farms viable for second and third generations.
The movement was initiated almost four years ago by Paul Maroon of Maroon Wines in Napa’s Coombsville area and Bill Wolf of Eagle Eye Vineyards when they approached Terry Scott, a former Napa County planning commissioner who, over the course of 19 years, sat in on the approval of more than 300 wineries.
Scott, who has become a pro bono consultant for SFFNV, says they were interested in changing the system so small grape growers/winemakers could hold tastings and sell wine on their properties without being required to build a fullfledged winery.
Today, the group has grown to several thousand supporters online and more than 50 members. Eight of those members met recently at Ken Nerlove’s home and vineyard in south Napa to share their vision for a budding proposal that would allow “micro-wineries” to host small tastings at their farms and in the vineyards.
Nerlove has been growing grapes on eight acres of his 30-acre family farm since 1983 and produces less than 1,000 cases a year. He wants to pass on his vineyards and farm to his daughter, Elise, who works alongside her dad in the summer and fall and also acts as sales manager, reaching out to restaurants, wine shops and distributors.
“We’ve been making and selling wine here for the past 25 years, Nerlove said. “For the first 20 years we were in the red. We don’t make a lot of money here. I have a nice life and I do what I like to do but I don’t have a big fat account. My daughter gets a small salary, and I mean small, and I take a small amount.”
The industry today is very different than it was 20 years ago, he said. The only way for small wineries now to be economically viable is to sell direct to the consumer.
“Years ago we were in distribution, but it’s a non-working model for the small producer,” Nerlove said. “Everybody in the wine business knows that the key to a successful winery, large or small, is offering people to taste your wines and join the wine club.”
And that is the crux of the Micro Winery Initiative, a simple proposal being brought to government and industry leaders in a county with tight controls over winery and agricultural operations.
Laws like the Winery Definition Ordinance, Agricultural Watershed zoning and Stream Setback rules, combined with federal and state alcohol licensing regulations often don’t take into account small family farms. “As a second generation grape grower I’m doing my best to sell wine, pounding the pavement going to restaurants and wine events. But I realized through my efforts that it’s going to be really hard to keep the business going without access to direct-to-consumer,” Elise Nerlove said. “It’s not a gut feeling. According to our numbers 85 percent of our sales need to come from direct-to-consumer retail sales to keep the business in the black.”
Barr Smith and son Zach Smith traveled from their home in Calistoga – Barlow Vineyards – to find out more about the SFFNV movement. Although they own 50 acres of land with 36 acres under vines, they have no plans to build a winery because it is cost prohibitive.
“We don’t have $3-$4 million to do that,” Barr Smith said. Like most small producers, he uses a customcrush facility to make his Barlow wines. Most of the family revenue comes from selling grapes not used to make their 1,800 cases of Barlow. Grape farming basically sustains the winemaking, he said. Smith admits the family has thought about getting out of the break-even wine business. The opportunity to host tastings at the family’s Silverado Trail farm would allow them to keep their label by expanding their wine club and sales and greatly reducing their marketing budget.
Zach Smith, like Elise Nerlove, spends time in the vineyard mowing, disking and watering when he’s not on the road selling wine. Having just returned from a Wisconsin sales trip the night before, he agreed that after accounting for the cost of flying, hotels, meals and driving, “It doesn’t always make sense. You pound pavement and you might sell wine but you’re not always making money.”
Elise Nerlove agreed. “Distributors won’t take on wineries who make less than 5,000 cases – the margins just aren’t there for them. Nor is that really a viable option because to sell to a distributor you need to sell at distributor pricing, which is 50 percent of retail. If we could keep 100 percent, that would make a big difference in our economics.”
Both second-generation farmers think a tasting experience at a family ranch with the people who farm and make the wine gives visitors a special experience that will be remembered and passed on.
“It’s almost like making friends, and they’ll want to come back for that again,” said Zach Smith.
Elise Nerlove added, “It would diversify the wine-tasting experience in Napa and there’s nothing wrong with offering people more options. There’s room for everybody. There’s room for the big tasting rooms, there’s room for the small guys like us. We’re just asking the county to level the playing field so that we may exist. If we don’t get access to direct-to-consumer, we’ll go out of business.”
In October, the Napa County Board of Supervisor directed planning director David Morrison to work with the group and bring back a draft Micro Winery Ordinance in early 2020 that would address the group’s proposal and concerns.
The essential points of the proposed ordinance are that tastings at micro wineries would only be allowed on properties located in the county’s Agriculture Watershed Zone; are a minimum of five acres with three acres planted to vineyard. A micro winery would have a maximum annual production of 10,000 gallons, the owner must live on the property, and all grapes used be 100 percent Napa Valley AVA with 85 percent from the estate. Tastings would be limited to appointment only with a maximum of five vehicles a day.
Former county planning commissioner Scott noted that contributions for the movement have come from “big players” like Michael Mondavi, Dario Sattui and Chuck Wagner. “I’m behind it because more and more we’re seeing corporations and hedge funds buying up wineries here and pretty soon we won’t be a farming region we’ll be ‘Napaland’ run by outside companies,” Scott said. “And we’ll have lost the small family farmers like Elise and Zach and others who are the backbone of the Napa Valley.”
For more information on the initiative, go to www.savethefamilyfarms.com