Growing Greener Grapes

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Fourth-generation Napa Valley winegrower Andrew Hoxsey isn’t one to seek attention for himself or his vineyards, but he has quietly become an important force in changing the farming techniques being used throughout the Napa Valley.

Hoxsey was the 2008-2009 chairman of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a group established by the Wine Institute and California Association of Winegrape Growers, which this week announced Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing, a program that will provide third-party verification of a winery’s or vineyard’s adherence to “a process of continuous improvement” in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices — chief among them, protecting air and water quality, conserving water, promoting energy efficiency, reducing pesticide use, and preserving ecosystems and animal habitats.

It will require applicants to meet 58 prerequisite criteria to be eligible. Applicants also must have an annual action plan to show improvement over time. It is the first statewide program available to both wineries and vineyards.

“We’ve tried to define what sustainable means so the consumer knows what it means,” Hoxsey said. “Wineries and growers have agreed we have to define what this means. I want progress, continual improvement. I want to move us all to the next level, not create more product differentiation, move us all further and faster.”

Though he prefers to fly under the radar, Hoxsey has provided substantial leadership when it comes to environmental causes and sustainable farming practices. He was among the first grape growers in Napa County to grow organically, achieving organic certification in 1986. He is aware that he “wasn’t very popular in those days.”

He continues to be one of the largest organic grape growers in the state.

“I think it’s the right thing to do, all the family members live on my farm, they’re drinking water from the wells on the farm and so the thought of me putting something on them [the grapes] that’ll get in the groundwater is not acceptable,” he says.

“I don’t know that I necessarily market our grapes leading with the organic,” he added. “Certainly I cringe when a salesman says, “Here, try this wine, it’s organic.’ From my perspective, it should be sold as: ‘A,’ it’s a good wine; and ‘B,’ it’s a good value, it overproduces on the price point. And once you’ve made the sale, oh by the way, it’s a wine made from grapes grown organically.”

Last fall was the Hoxsey family’s 105th harvest. His mother is a descendant of the Pelissa family, who emigrated from northern Italy, settling into the Napa Valley more than 100 years ago. Their first piece of land consisted of 32 acres just south of Calistoga where the family tended to a milk cow and vegetable garden.

His grandfather, Andrew Pelissa, born in 1906, took over the family business as a teenager, after the death of his father. After he married, he moved with his new wife, who had grown up on the property that is now Nickel & Nickel Winery, to the Oakville/Yountville area.

In 1929, Pelissa bought the core of the family’s home property and began amassing and consolidating pieces of plantable land that make up Hoxsey’s holdings today: 1,000 acres in all, 635 of them planted, two-thirds in Yountville, the other third in Oakville. Pelissa also was instrumental in the 1968 creation of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, which is crucial to conserving the valley’s agricultural roots.

Sustainable and more sophisticated

Hoxsey’s mom, Dawne Pelissa Dickenson, is the daughter of Andrew Pelissa. Management of the family grape-growing business in Napa skipped a generation; Hoxsey grew up on a cattle ranch in Modoc County and would come down to Napa during summers, where he farmed alongside his grandfather.

He then went to University of California at Davis to further his viticultural education, graduating in 1978 with a degree in agricultural economics and business management. In 1984, Pelissa handed day-to-day management of the family ranch to his grandson.

“There were six wineries around in those days — Mondavi, Beringer, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu, Inglenook and two cooperatives, the St. Helena cooperative which is now Markham, and the Napa Valley cooperative which is now Hall,” Hoxsey recalled.

Today, more than 30 wineries buy fruit from Hoxsey, who grows 13 different varietals from all the Bordeaux varietals to those typically used to make champagne.

“We don’t always do the expected,” he said. “The Oakville floor is more known for cabernet sauvignon than pinot grigio, but we don’t always look at it from an MBA [master’s of business administration] point of view.”

In addition to serving 11 years on the board of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, and his recent stint as chairman of the association, Hoxsey hopes he has helped others improve the way they farm their land.

“The goal is not necessarily to make everyone go organic but to do everything in a much more sustainable fashion,” he said. “A fashion that is not only economically viable and environmentally sustainable but socially just.”

Hoxsey acknowledges that he is able to reduce his own environmental footprint through sheer geography. His vineyards are contiguous — five miles from his northern to southern boundaries. That better allows him to reduce energy use in many ways, including the trucking of equipment, the management of resources during crush and the hauling of compost.

But ultimately Hoxsey thinks his fruit is more interesting.

“There’s a complexity of organically grown fruit, it’s [got] nuances,” Hoxsey said. “It’s taken us almost 20 years to figure this out. Early on, pinot noir grown in California [had flavors of] raspberry and strawberry and that’s all you got, one dimension. With our pinot noir, I get the raspberry/strawberry, but I also get forest floor, mushroom, it’s not overpowering, but nuanced. I love it.”


Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.

Photo of Andrew Hoxsey by Virginie Boone

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