It’s easy to forget that behind every bottle of wine there is a farmer. As consumers (and wine writers) we can get so wrapped up in tasting notes, pedigree, packaging and all the glamor and shine that surrounds a bottle of wine that we often overlook the fact that it it is an agricultural product, born in the earth, produced from plants and made by farmers.
But a recent conversation with Tom Gamble, a third-generation Napa farmer who produces some of the region’s best wines under the Gamble Family Vineyards label, put that into perspective.
“Our ability to make great wines depends on the terroir and the environment,” he said of the 175 acres of vineyard land he owns in five of Napa’s most prestigious appellations. “All of the natural conditions that affect growing conditions are what make great wines. These are special places.
Special indeed. In recent months, there has been an explosion of vineyard and land consolidation in Napa Valley. Long-standing, family-run wineries like Shafer Vineyards, Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Frank Family Vineyards – to name a few – have been taken over by big corporations in massive takeovers, with prices in the hundreds. millions of dollars. There is a rush for land and a thirst for vineyards that has driven prices to new levels.
But for Gamble, whose grandfather began acquiring property in Napa County in 1916, the plan is not to turn over the vines, but rather to continue building something for the long term, where quality and the integrity of wines matter.
“Our challenge is to successfully navigate generational change and the evolution of what we have here. It comes both from living with the land and from my family history,” he said.
Gamble’s hope is that the future will include several of his dozens of nieces and nephews, as well as those of his wife, who will be part of the next generation.
“All have a love of the land, and all could be good landlords,” he said.
Farming and Family: Sounds romantic, but it’s harder than it looks. In addition to recent consolidations within the Valley and shifts in industry tastes, there have been fires and pandemics to navigate. But for Gamble, the game remains the same.
“I have a winery addiction,” he laughed of his holdings in AVAs in Oakville (Family Home), Rutherford (CC Ranch), Yountville, Mt. Veeder and Coombsville. “Maybe I need a 12-step program.”
Gamble Family Vineyards launched its first vintage in 2005. For the past fifteen years it has produced excellent bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from the best fruit from its own vineyards, although the company sells the majority of its grapes to other wine producers.
“Our wines are not designed to have the loudest voice. Rather, we strive to produce nuanced wines, not blockbusters. We try to keep the alcohol below 14% and make wines that go well with food,” said Gamble, when asked to define the distinctive style produced by Gamble Family.
Premium Cabernet Sauvignon wines and Bordeaux blended wines under the Gamble Family label are made in limited quantities and have, to date, been sold under the Napa appellation. About half of the wines are sold directly to consumers, either at the Oakville winery or to wine club members, with the other half offered at the wholesale market. Gamble said he just struck a deal with a distributor in Colorado, so we can expect to see those wines here soon.
He’s also excited about a relatively new project called The Mill Keeper, a less expensive selection of Napa wines, which take advantage of fruit that isn’t used for high-end bottling.
“Don’t waste, don’t want,” he said of the source of the fruit used in Mill Keeper. “We drop great fruit from the vines every harvest that can still make great wines that we can sell at a bargain price.”
In addition to using fruit that would otherwise be wasted, Mill Keeper wines are MV or multi-vintage wines. This means that the wines are sourced from different harvest years, much like champagne and non-vintage ports, then blended to take advantage of the unique strengths of the different harvests.
This summer has brought significant changes to Gamble family wines as they continue to evolve to meet the challenges of being independent in an increasingly competitive corporate environment. In June, longtime winemaker Jim Close, who has produced every bottle of Gamble family wine to date and has been with the company for nearly 20 years, decided to write another chapter.
“Jim felt like trying something new,” Gamble said. “Although sorry to see him go, we were really lucky to have him here for 19 years. But he agreed to help us with our transition.
Gamble began this transition by contracting with Atelier Melka, the superstar wine consulting team led by Bordeaux-trained Napa legend Philippe Melka. Melka, who has been part of some of Napa’s most beloved wine projects over the past three decades, gets to choose his customers and is a credit to the winery he has become involved with.
“I’ve known Phillipe for a number of years, and he topped a very short list,” Gamble said.
Melka brings his team with him, including Israeli-born winemaker Maayan Koschitzky, who moved to Napa in 2011 and whose resume includes stints at both Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle.
“Change is evolutionary. This is going to bring stability, giving us a long-term solution that keeps us on a trajectory,” Gamble said.
The plan is to start releasing wines that are designated sub-AVA and extract the gold that is dirt in the vineyards.
“As we have replanted and continue to replant our wine properties, we do so in the spirit of improving quality and sustainability,” Gamble emphasized. “Coupled with these intense viticultural efforts, I am certain that the expertise of the Melka team will continue to lift the wines of Gamble Family Vineyards for years to come.
As anyone who has visited the former white barn and winery at The Gamble Family Ranch knows, sustainability is a benchmark of the property. Gamble is involved in the Napa Green Winery and Vineyard sustainability projects, and his mother was involved in the groundbreaking 1968 classification, which designated that “agriculture is, and should continue to be, the predominant use of land and excludes the development of urban uses detrimental to the maintenance of agriculture. »
“It comes from living with the land,” Gamble said. “My mother was a soldier in the struggle to pass the Napa Valley Agricultural Reservation.”
The fight changed the course of history in Napa Valley and obviously resonates with Gamble to this day.
Oh, and another change is about to happen. Gamble Family bought one of the first fully electric self-driving tractors. Monarch Tractor of Livermore, California is the Tesla of farm equipment.
“When you think about it, a tractor is perhaps the most important vehicle in the world. This is what allows food systems to thrive,” he said.
The tractor is a product of modern technology combined with farming tradition – just like Tom Gamble himself.