KING OF THE WINE VINES
Former football guard develops taste for wine and success
by Su Clauson-Wicker
People didn't drink wine when Andy Beckstoffer (BC '61) was growing up in Richmond in the 1950s. "My daddy drank Virginia Gentleman bourbon. Nobody in the South drank wine," says one of California's largest growers of premium wine grapes.
Later, when the U.S. Army assigned him to the San Francisco Presidio after Tech graduation, Beckstoffer sampled the wines of Napa Valley during his regional explorations and allowed as how they were not bad. But some say even then the former Tech football guard preferred milk.
The taste for good wine is an acquired one, which Beckstoffer was to gain later, after an Ivy League M.B.A., when, as head of acquisitions for the Heublein conglomerate, his job was to find a home for a line of wines that included ranked Bordeaux and '45 Latours. In the process of becoming familiar with his product, Beckstoffer quickly acquired a taste for fine wines.
The process by which he acquired the grapes took a bit longer. But not much.
In 1969, when dry wine sales were taking off, Beckstoffer engineered Heublein's purchase of a California grape growers' cooperative to get the key wineries, Italian Swiss Colony and Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyard. His next task was to get good grapes, and Beckstoffer had an idea: start a big farming operation to supply them with premium Napa Valley fruit. On his recommendation, Heublein purchased more than 800 acres of vineyard lands in Napa and Mendocino County. Beckstoffer began the transformation from corporate executive to corporate farmer, studying up on root stocks, grafting, trellising, pruning, and soil compaction.
By 1972, Heublein decided they had enough grapes for the long term and asked Beckstoffer, then vice president of planning, to find a buyer for the vineyards. He found one--himself. Unable to find a quality farmer with sufficient finances for the company, Heublein and another vineyard client loaned Beckstoffer all the money and agreed to pump several million into vineyard development.
Beckstoffer instantly became one of the biggest growers in the valley, with inside information about what was coming on the market, and the financial clout to act on it. He claimed he solved a problem for Heublein, but others, including James Conaway in his recent best-selling book, Napa, say the enterprise made Beckstoffer a millionaire.
"We had five kids, no savings, and a load of debt. It was pretty scary. But it was also a wonderful opportunity that we couldn't pass," he says.
Today, Beckstoffer supplies premium wine grapes for 25 wineries, as well as his own label, Fremont Creek. The words, "produced by Beckstoffer Vineyards," on any label have come to symbolize quality among wine connoisseurs.
Beckstoffer is undisputedly the largest independent grower the premium wine region of north coastal California, owning more than 1,700 acres of grapes, worth $25,000 to $70,000 an acre. He has left his mark on the valley's main industry, both in the rows of closely spaced, drip-irrigated vines--innovations he introduced to Napa--and in the elevated status of growers.
"I see myself as an entrepreneur more than an agrarian," he adds. Beckstoffer is a founding director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, an organization that he says did for growers what the late Caesar Chavez' union did for farmworkers, by organizing them, helping them develop pricing strategies, and giving them control over the dispensation of their product. "Grape growers are now looking for an excellent winemaker who can sell his wine at a premium price, rather than just a home for their perishable product," he says.
"This is," he says, gesturing out over the vineyards from his three-story observation tower, "some of the highest quality, and most valuable agricultural land in the country. We are the largest sellers of grapes in the premium area of California."
Beckstoffer rides between the Victorian mansion that serves as his headquarters and his vineyards in the Mercedes Benz jeep he had specially imported from Germany. Back in 1976, he started feeling a little isolated in St. Helena (population 4,000), so he began networking with other young CEOs through the Young Presidents Organization, a club for company presidents worth "a certain amount." After his 50th birthday, he shifted his membership to the World Presidents Organization and chaired its last conference, a two-week event in Italy. Through the organization, he's worked with Jimmy Carter, Walter Cronkite, and many other national figures.
In March, the Beckstoffers hosted a reception for the San Francisco chapter of Virginia Tech's alumni association, attracting the largest crowd ever for a university gathering in northern California.
The Beckstoffer ranch on Zinfandel Lane, where he and his wife Betty raised their five children, sits far back from the road, shaded by trees. The Beckstoffers married his junior year at Virginia Tech after being friends and sweethearts since grammar school. "Our parents used to double date--that's how things are in Richmond," he says.
Beckstoffer says he and Betty cook outside, eat outside, and even sleep outside on the sun porch with the sky over their heads. A marathon runner, he logs 4-10 miles a day.
"Being outdoors is one of the most important things in my life," he says.
Beckstoffer grew up in Richmond, thinking he wanted to be an construction engineer. He didn't think of himself as particularly ambitious. "I studied building construction at Tech, but what I really studied at Tech was football," he says. His roommate, Terry Strock, now Virginia Tech assistant football coach, joined the German Club, so he did, too.
"My Virginia Tech experience was great preparation for the rest of my life," he says. "It taught me how to think qualitatively and quantitatively and set up a way of looking at life in terms of numbers that I've used ever since."
"Tech gave me another valuable lesson--the experinece of failure. I didn't get to play football as much as I would have liked. I just wasn't aggressive enough. I didn't go beyond my talent as a player."
After his tour with the Army, he moved the family to New Hampshire while he obtained an M.B.A. from Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business. "I did well, and found that I could play with the best," he says. "Amos Tuck taught me how to be aggressive. Heublien let me exercise.
"I've gotten more aggressive in my old age," he observes. "I've known failure at Tech, and it doesn't scare me much. You've got to work hard and believe in something and then go for it."
Beckstoffer considers himself an environmentalist--a protector of open spaces, clean air, and water. He spends a third of his time involved in community affairs. As a planning commission member, he has fought to limit urban development in the Napa Valley. Several years ago, he proposed that new wineries be required to use local grapes for at least 75 percent of their wine production. Some vintners called the proposal extreme, accusing him of attempting to monopolize grape production at the expense of the wineries. But Beckstoffer said he just wanted to protect the vineyards by limiting the brash new enterprises with no ties to local agriculture being thrown up along the valley's narrow highway and the press of tourists.
His camp won the zoning battle that followed, but he admits that if vineyards weren't of such high quality and so highly priced, some growers might sell out to the highest bidder.
"The quality of our grapes and wine keeps Napa Valley the wonderful place it is," he says. "A camp split by environmentalists and agriculturalists is not good. We need to side against excessive urban development. Agriculture is effective environmentalism; we should be in the same camp."
At this point in life, several of the Beckstoffer children are rallying around the farm. One son is a grower; a daughter markets their wine label; and the youngest son will enter California Polytechnic Institute at San Luis Obispo this fall to study viticulture, the science of growing.
"My goal hasn't been to have a lot of money," Beckstoffer says. "My goal is an estate of agricultural land I can pass to the children and their children. I need to reach a point of critical mass to withstand outside threats.
"I consider this a good life," he says. "Yes, I suppose some would say there's some glamour. But some wouldn't. We live in a small town and are worldwide representatives of fine wines and vines. When I take an aggressive stance, I become a public figure. You have to be active. You get your name in the papers. You get calls and criticism.
"Of course, there's the other side; you go to a winemakers' dinner and someone comes across the room with an empty bottle for you to autograph. And there's the book, Napa. I was portrayed as a bad guy brought in by a corporation who ended up rallying for the valley. But you have to read to the end to get the full picture. Some don't read that far.
"This kind of stuff can go to your head. You need to maintain a balance. I think wine growing relates to dirt; can dirt be glamorous?"
Real glamour, he says, is having dinner with eight or nine people, several who are involved in the wine industry, maybe two who just got back from another culture, one or two who are involved in some sort of controversy, and at least two who bring some old, old wine."
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 15, Number 4 Summer 1993