40 Years of Growing Grapes and Making Wine with Tom Farella
With four decades of experience growing grapes on a single piece of land in Napa Valley, Tom is in a unique position to speak about the history of Napa and the changes he’s witnessed since the beginning of the modern era of winemaking in the valley in the early 1970s. He’s seen the advent and proliferation of the appellation system in the U.S., the perils (and hidden advantages) of phylloxera and the rise of Cabernet Sauvignon as King of Napa Valley.
“Back in those days, Napa Cabernet Sauvignons were not very yummy,” he remembers. “They were undrinkable to me. They tasted like bell pepper and tar and were angular. Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling—these were all commonly planted grapes up and down the valley in the early days.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, dramatic changes in the viticultural landscape took place. This was the period when wine critics and wine publications became popular—wine moved into the American mainstream consciousness. The French Paradox—a concept that the French, who consumed high amounts of fat, had lower risk of cardiovascular disease—was popularized by a documentary on 60 Minutes. “People said, why can the French eat two pounds of butter a day and have the lowest incidence of heart disease?” Tom says. “After this, red wine became healthy.”
Today, Farella Vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. After the rise of Cabernet Sauvignon, winemakers in Napa faced new challenges. “There was this thing that was irresistible,” Tom recalls of the early 2000s. “Let the fruit hang. We have three more weeks of sunshine and great weather. The temptation is thrilling.” But Tom wanted to make wines that would age well in bottle, which requires a wine with plenty of acidity, tannin and fruit. “What defines ripeness?”
“Sometimes you have to remind yourself what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” Tom explains. “You can’t age a wine without acidity. Yet on the flip side, you can’t make a yummy wine that’s too acidic. How do you walk that line? And how can I make wines that are ready, delicious and drinkable when young and yet are still ageworthy. That’s a challenge.” Wine is, of course, a business. “Winemakers need money,” he says. “You’ve got to play the game. Fortunately for me, we have the cushion of being an estate vineyard. My dad never pushed me—we’ve always made wine that we like to drink.”
His approach is reminiscent of the French lutte raisonée, a sort-of common sense method that calls for inputs (and chemical sprays) only when necessary. “A little bit of Roundup sprayed from an ATV at the right time is a very low impact process,” Tom explains. “People have a visceral reaction to the word Roundup, but they’re driving cars, using heaters, etc. We have to be careful not to be hypocrites. The unintended consequences of organic farming creates far more inputs and now you’re moving back in the other direction. If you want to be the best planetary steward, keeping those tools in mind, whether they’re chemical or not, could be a far better path to your goal, which for me is using minimum inputs while maximizing what I get from the vineyard.”
After 40 years of making wine in Coombsville, Tom has concluded that less is more. “I’ve always been of the mind that the less we do, the better. The same exact philosophy applies to winemaking. As I see it, winemaking is stewardship of the grapes. As a winemaker, if you believe in terroir, you have to understand what your grapes will optimally produce and maximize that potential, versus inserting yourself as the winemaker. The best winemakers have an anthropomorphic relationship with their vines. You go out there and feel their presence, you feel yourself talking to them. You’re more of a vigneron. It’s a tough thing to do in Napa—the business here is so stratified, with viticulturalists, crew chiefs, owners, PR people, a winemaker. For me, it’s more like being in my backyard. That self-contained system is really the ideal.”
Photos courtesy of Farella Vineyards Facebook page.
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