Know Your Grower: Andy Beckstoffer

Frank Family Vineyards owns 380 acres of the highest quality grapevines in the Napa Valley. However, it is important to also source excellent fruit from highly desired locations for us to maintain consistency and quality from vintage to vintage. Where and from whom we purchase grapes is a direct correlation to quality and an extension of our core values. One grower who we have been proud to work with for almost a decade is Beckstoffer Vineyards. Winemaker Todd Graff had the pleasure to sit down with the man who started it all, Andy Beckstoffer, and found that his thoughts and philosophies mirror many of ours.

Andy Beckstoffer journeyed to Napa from his home state of Virginia in the late 1960s. He had a dream to transform farming into an entrepreneurial industry where cultivating crops was financially sustainable for generations to come. But the road ahead of him was long as Napa Valley was a different place back then. The hospitality industry for which Napa has become famous for did not exist as it does today. There were no Michelin star restaurants or an abundance of world-class wineries; virtually there was no wine country. 

Businesses dedicated to growing and selling grapes was a foreign concept. In fact, upon his arrival, Andy recalls being treated like a third-class citizen. His response to this treatment? Andy founded the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association to provide growers a seat at the table and a voice to be heard. Today, Beckstoffer Vineyards has contributed in infinite ways to the transformation of Napa Valley. Andy and the grape growing empire he created has helped establish the world-recognized wine, culinary, and hospitality powerhouse that Napa has become. We are honored to call Beckstoffer Vineyards our grower partner, neighbor, and above all, our friend. 

TG: We’re here in the heart of Rutherford, at Georges III Vineyard. Frank Family purchases quite a few grapes from here. What makes this place so special? 

AB: In the 1980s, Napa Valley was selling its grapes in a “Bordeaux way” – they were all blends and wine writers began to say Napa Valley Cabernets taste all the same. So, we thought, how do we improve on that and how do we make that better? I realized we needed to show off the individual terroirs and started looking for vineyards that have been producing grapes for 100 to 150 years. This site, Georges III, has been growing grapes since 1898 when Mrs. Thomas Rutherford owned it. I decided we needed a “heritage vineyard” such as this and purchased it in 1988. 

The grapes were good from the start, but the difference came when we went through Phylloxera and brought technology into the vineyard. We saw a major increase in the quality of the fruit. We could then start to vineyard designate and insist that the vintners put only those grapes in the bottle, not blend them. At that time, Napa Valley changed completely in the way they began marketing wine. This is the “Burgundian way.” 

TG: You have worked hard to grow the highest quality grapes and establish a brand around them. How do you decide who to sell to? 

AB: Well first we find a good winemaker or an emerging winemaker because these grapes need to be made into wine. Second, we have to find that winemaker who is working for someone who understands quality and has the ability to do it, like the Franks. You can be a good winemaker, but if the winery owner doesn’t understand quality, doesn’t have the money, or doesn’t understand how to price it and market it – it will not work. That’s the combination of things that work beautifully for us with Frank Family. People won’t believe this, but you can mess it up. Nature can mess it up from our side, and it’s tragic for good grapes not to be made into good wine. People say wine is made in the vineyard. Well, it’s not! You have to have good grapes to start with, but winemakers make good wine. These good grapes come to you and then you make good wine with them. 

TG: Most grape growers have gone on to become winemakers. Will you someday do the same? 

AB: This is our 50th year, and we’ve avoided it for 50 years. I think we’ll stay where we are, but that’s a way of life decision. I love being outside; I love being with the farmers. When I was growing up, I thought I would build things, but I ended up growing things, and I really like that. I never was really turned on by the winemaking process, I’m in awe of what you do, but I can’t do that. I could have been a small or medium sized grower and medium sized vintner, but I thought I’d be better off just being a large grower. That allows me to just focus on growing the grapes. 

TG: Frank Family Vineyards is one of the few lucky wineries to source grapes from your Carneros Lake Vineyard. We are also proud to be the first to produce a single vineyard Beckstoffer Pinot Noir. However, you have had your name on several labels throughout Napa Valley. How does that make you feel? 

AB: In 1968 Andre Tchelistcheff made a Pinot Noir from grapes that Frank Family Vineyards now receives. It revolutionized the idea that we can really grow great grapes in Carneros, and Beckstoffer was a part of that movement. That was when we bought a major part of Carneros Lake. However, one of the stories of what we do here is about agriculture preservation. When we started out, the growers couldn’t make money, and the vineyards were not economic entities, so we had to do things to make them profitable. We created bottle pricing in which we tied the price of grapes to the price of wine. This meant that when the vintner raised the price of the wine, it also raised the price of the grapes. Soon you can vineyard designate the wines, thus making the vineyard economically viable. When that happens, we in turn preserve agriculture in the Napa Valley. 

When it’s all over, no one will remember the great wines you made or the grapes we grow; they will remember whether we preserved agriculture here or not. Yes, you do feel good about having your name on a label, no question about it, but it’s all part of the system. We will do anything we can to make these grapes better for you. Part of it is getting them in the hands of vintners who can pay for them, but even more so, getting them in the hands of vintners who can make wine like your Beckstoffer Pinot Noir. That’s what the system is about, and that’s what I really feel good about.