FROM VINE TO WINE
THE GENTLEMAN FARMER: Andy Beckstoffer ’61 is CEO of Beckstoffer Vineyards, which farms more than 3,600 acres of delicate wine grapes in northern California’s top wine-producing areas, including the Napa Valley, Mendocino County, and the Red Hills of Lake County.
On a crisp March morning, a pale yellow Victorian building with a red roof sat at the end of a road that wound through acres of grape vines. In the cozy top-floor office, bright California sunshine spilled through open glass doors that led to a deck overlooking a stream. The interior décor featured an eclectic collection of basketball bobbleheads and bronze sculptures in a western motif.
A Virginia flag stood prominently behind the large desk, where Andy Beckstoffer, renowned California viticulturist, was on the phone. From here, Beckstoffer ’61, one of California’s largest growers of premium wine grapes, manages day-to-day business.
“I live in California. I’ve been here for 50 years, but I’m from Virginia,” said Beckstoffer, gesturing to the flag behind him. “I’m still a Virginian. I’m still from Richmond, and I’m still proud of it.”
Today, Virginia is home to numerous wineries and vineyards, but drinking wine wasn’t a pastime when Beckstoffer was growing up in Richmond in the 1950s. "My daddy drank Virginia Gentleman bourbon. Nobody in the South drank wine," Beckstoffer said.
Beckstoffer, who attended Virginia Tech on a football scholarship, majored in building construction, which at the time was a part of the College of Engineering. “My family was in the lumber and millwork business,” said Beckstoffer. “So, I chose the building construction curriculum. I always thought I would go into the homebuilding business.”
A member of Army ROTC, Beckstoffer served two years in the Army after graduating in 1961. While stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco, he sampled the wines of the Napa Valley. But it was later, following graduate school, that Beckstoffer developed not only a taste for fine wine but also a successful career in the industry.
“I graduated from Dartmouth with an MBA in 1966, and I wanted to work in the free enterprise system. Eventually I took a job with Heublein, a producer and distributor of alcoholic beverages, as the director of acquisition analysis. It was my job to help them acquire companies, and one of the first things that came up was the wine business,” he said.
Beckstoffer played a critical role in advising Heublein to enter the premium wine segment of the California wine industry, including its purchase of Beaulieu Vineyards and United Vintners, owners of Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony wines. In the process of becoming familiar with the product, Beckstoffer also acquired a taste for fine wines.
In time, Beckstoffer relocated to California to oversee the company investment, establishing the Vinifera Development Corp. and directing all aspects of farming the vineyards. Eventually, he purchased Vinefera from Heublein and set about revolutionizing the California wine grape industry.
Dedicated solely to the acquisition, farming, and preservation of vineyards that produce exceptional wine grapes, Beckstoffer Vineyards farms more than 3,600 acres in northern California’s top wine-producing areas, including the Napa Valley, Mendocino County, and the Red Hills of Lake County. Recognizing that each of these winegrowing regions features different environmental characteristics that affect the delicate wine grapes, Beckstoffer customizes sustainable farming practices at each vineyard.
WINE WISE: In November 2019, viticulturist Andy Beckstoffer shared his grape-growing expertise with Virginia Tech faculty and students at a special event held at the Wine Lab in Blacksburg.
The building-construction-engineer-turned-grape-grower realized that to increase grape production and improve profitability, growers needed to employ technologies that would enable them to work smarter.
Beckstoffer Vineyards has pioneered innovations in drip irrigation, vine spacing, bench graft production, vineyard technology, and farming management that have significantly improved wine grape quality. The organization has also implemented new technologies to monitor and analyze vine health and productivity, manage water use, and improve vineyard efficiency. Such practices have established Beckstoffer Vineyards as consistent producers of grape varieties that can be found in many of the best wines in the world.
“The Napa Valley wine business has gotten to where it is on the back of technology, both in vineyards and in the winery, and that’s where Virginia Tech came in for me,” Beckstoffer said.
Beckstoffer leaned on the problem-solving strategies he’d learned as an engineering student to help growers incorporate science and technology strategically alongside the techniques and traditions grape growers before him had relied on successfully for generations.
As a founding director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, Beckstoffer forged an early, historic agreement on grape pricing that tied the price of grapes to price of the wine. Thus began a new era in which grape quality and land preservation were brought to the forefront of the grape-growing industry.
“There’s a natural conflict in all of agriculture between grower and producers,” Beckstoffer said. “But we wanted to shift from being a commodity to being a branded product ourselves. Now the price of grapes is a multiple of the price of wine.”
And as the business continued to evolve, the wines added a vineyard designation to their labels. Savvy consumers took note and began to demand wines made from grapes associated with a particular vineyard. Grapes are the primary determinant for the quality of the wine. It’s complicated, but the grape itself becomes a branded product.
In the February 2009 edition of American Vineyard, Fred Schrader of The Schrader Cellars called Beckstoffer a “visionary” who is “very focused on producing the best quality grapes that are possible,” explaining that the partnership wherein Beckstoffer grows the grapes and Schrader makes the wine—is the “best of all possible worlds.”
“I’ve always said that if you want to succeed, do things better than other people do,” said Beckstoffer. “But if you want to hit a home run, change the way business is done. We did that here.”
CHEERS: In the process of developing his career, Andy Beckstoffer acquired a taste for fine wines and a gift for growing the grapes required to make them.
“California wine country is special because of three things: the soil, the Mediterranean-like climate, and the people” said Beckstoffer. “The passion, ingenuity, and desire of the California winemakers and growers really set the stage for success. When we started out, we were farmers. As we overcame challenges and learned from mistakes, we became vitaculturists. And as we progressed, we became stewards of the land.”
In 2007, Beckstoffer’s commitment to agricultural preservation and advocacy for federal tax incentives for donations of conservation easements earned him recognition as the Napa County Farm Bureau’s Outstanding Agriculturist of the Year along with a “first of its kind” Congressional Wine Caucus Commendation. Conservation easements guarantee that a propery will remain as a farm or open space in perpetuity.
Al Wagner, then-president of the Napa County Farm Bureau said, “We applaud Andy’s leadership in preserving the agricultural and natural resources of Napa County. His advocacy efforts in Congress will lead to many more conservation easements and protection for thousands of acreas of agricultural land and open space.”
Beckstoffer lives in the Napa Valley with his wife, Betty, to whom he has been married for more than 50 years. The couple has five children and seven grandchildren. One son serves as chief operating officer for Beckstoffer Vineyards, and another has opened a winery in the region.
In 2000, the Beckstoffers were named Citizens of the Year for their dedication and active participation in their community of St. Helena, California. And, in 2010, he was elected into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, the first grower to be honored with this prestigious wine industry award.
Business responsibilities and distance have made it difficult for Beckstoffer to return to Blacksburg, but in the fall of 2019, Board of Visitors Rector, Horacio Valeiras, invited Beckstoffer to visit the university with him.
“My wife, Amy, and I have been big fans of Andy’s grapes for many years. As a fellow Hokie-turned-Californian, it’s been a pleasure getting to know this legendary figure in the California wine industry and helping reconnect him with Virginia Tech,” said Valeiras.
On campus for the first time in more than a decade, Beckstoffer enjoyed a campus tour and a special event with faculty and graduate students who share his interest in wine. Jaclyn Fiola, a doctoral student in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, was among the guests at the event.
“It was an honor to meet the man who helped put American wine on the global stage,” said Fiola. “We shared a laugh about being more comfortable getting our hands dirty in the vineyard than being in a tasting room.”
For Beckstoffer, the visit offered a chance for reflection on his university experiences and education. “Virginia Tech helped me succeed in the basics of how I think quantitatively,” said Beckstoffer. “When I wanted to learn more about how banks make lending decisions, I volunteered on a bank board. I joined a city planning board to learn about how the government makes decisions. When you are passionate about something, you find ways to incorporate it into every aspect of your life, which can be good and bad.
“It’s like the wine itself. People say, ’I went to this wonderful dinner. I met these lovely people.’ The wine is like another guest at the table that helps you savor every moment.”