Napa Valley Grapegrowers Plan Registry of Historic Vineyards

Andy Beckstoffer's latest look at Napa's historic properties hopes to register sites from the 19th century
Lynn Alley
Posted: February 4, 2009

Andy Beckstoffer has grown grapes in Napa Valley long enough to know that its vineyards have a deeper history than most people realize, stretching back more than a century. He's also been around long enough to know the value of a historic name. In 2002, Robert Mondavi Winery sued winemaker Fred Schrader for putting Tokalon Vineyard on his 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon. Schrader had purchased the grapes from Beckstoffer, who owned a portion of the historic Oakville vineyard. Mondavi had trademarked the name To-Kalon a few years earlier.

Schrader won the suit, but the case proved a lesson for many in Napa, and Beckstoffer later teamed up with Mondavi executives and others to develop a registry of historic vineyards. That effort has grown and Beckstoffer recently launched a new phase in the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association project.

"We want to establish the historic precedent of vineyards in the Napa Valley," said Beckstoffer. "Few people realize that there were more than 18,000 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley at the end of the 19th century."

"How do we continue to do the work that people have done in the Napa Valley for over 100 years? How do we tell our story? We want to make sure our vineyards are valued not only as a commercial venture, but as a matter of history and pride," said Jennifer Kopp Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association.

The Association first started working on a registry in 2004, asking vineyard owners to apply for certification. But few growers had records to prove their vineyards' history, and the effort fizzled.

This time around, Beckstoffer's committee has hired cultural anthropologist Rue Ziegler, who specializes in researching land use in Northern California, and Matt Lamborn of Pacific Geodata, a mapping specialist, to do the initial research on early maps and documents of late-19th century Napa Valley.

To date, the committee has completed a phase-one report containing historical documents and early maps of land planted to grapes. Resources include early reports from the State Board of Viticulture Commissioners from 1891 and 1893 and official Napa County surveyor maps dating from 1876, 1895 and 1915.

"Phase two," said Ziegler, "will be to go back through those records, straighten them up, get rid of duplications, search for additional sources, and then start linking names of growers with the historical maps."

In phase three, the researchers will overlay historic late-19th century vineyard maps with modern day maps of Napa County vineyards and properties. Those modern vineyards and properties that clearly lie in an area where old vineyards existed will then be eligible to register their vineyards in the Historic Vineyard Registry.

"When the map is complete, anyone with a vineyard on what was listed as vineyard property in our records can elect to go through the property registration process," said Beckstoffer.

The registration process has not yet been clearly defined, which could lead to some hiccups down the road, however. Beckstoffer added that there may be a few growers who should qualify for the registry, but who may not appear in the completed maps. "We want people to know that if they have historic documents and photos to back up their claims, they can submit them to the committee for consideration."

"We are thinking in the backs of our minds that this might serve as a model for other growing regions and communities, and to keep our agricultural heritage alive," said Putnam.

The committee estimates the project will cost approximately $300,000. Beckstoffer says he is currently in the process of raising the money needed to fund the project. "I'm going to ask stakeholders in the valley to donate," said Beckstoffer.

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