WineInk: Gamble Family Vineyards Sustains Napa’s Future
It’s easy to forget that at the origin of every bottle of wine there is a farmer. As consumers (and wine writers), we can get so wrapped up in the tasting notes, the pedigree, the packaging and all of the glamour and gloss that surrounds a bottle of wine, we often overlook the fact that it is an agricultural commodity, born in the dirt, produced from plants and made by farmers.
But a recent conversation with Tom Gamble, a third-generation Napa farmer who makes some of the region’s best wines under the Gamble Family Vineyards label, put that in perspective.
“Our ability to make great wines comes down to the terroir and the environment,” he said about the 175 acres of vineyard land he owns in five of Napa’s most prestigious appellations. “All of the natural conditions that affect the growing conditions are what makes great wines. These are special places.”
Special indeed. Over the last few months, there has been an explosion in consolidation of wineries and land in the Napa Valley. Long-time family-owned wine entities like Shafer Vineyards, Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Frank Family Vineyards — to name just a few — have come under the control of larger companies in massive buyouts, with prices in the hundreds of millions of dollars. There is a land rush and a lust for wineries that has sent prices to new levels.
But for Gamble, whose grandfather first started acquiring property in Napa County in 1916, the plan is not to flip the vines, but rather to continue to build something long term, where the quality and the integrity of wines matters.
“Our challenge is successfully navigating the generational change and evolution of what we have here. That comes from both living with the land and the history of my family,” he said.
Gamble’s hope is that the future will include many of his, and his wife’s, dozen nieces and nephews, which are part of the next generation.
“All have a love of the land, and all could be good owners,” he said.
Farming and family: It sounds romantic, but it is tougher than it seems. In addition to the recent consolidations within the valley and industry changes in tastes, there have been fires and pandemics to get through. But for Gamble, the game remains the same.
“I have an addiction to vineyards,” he said, chuckling as he spoke of his holdings in the Oakville (Family Home), Rutherford (CC Ranch), Yountville, Mt. Veeder and Coombsville AVAs. “Maybe I need a 12-step program.”
Gamble Family Vineyards launched its first vintage in 2005. Over the last decade and a half, it has produced stellar Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings from the finest fruit on its own vineyards, though 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 wines that are nuanced, not blockbusters. We try and keep alcohol below 14% and make wines that are great with food,” Gamble said, when asked to define the distinctive style that Gamble Family produces.
The premium Cabernet Sauvignon wines and Bordeaux blend wines under the Gamble Family label are made in limited quantities and have, to date, been sold under the Napa appellation designation. About half of the wines are sold direct to consumers, either at the winery in Oakville or wine club members, with the other half offered on the wholesale marketplace. Gamble said he has just completed an agreement with a distributor in Colorado, so we can expect to see these wines here soon.
He is also excited about a relatively new project called The Mill Keeper, a less expensive selection of Napa wines, which take advantage of the fruit that is not used for the premium bottlings.
“Waste not, want not,” 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 great price.”
In addition to using fruit that would otherwise be wasted, the Mill Keeper wines are MV, or multi-vintage wines. This means that the wines are sourced from different harvest years, much like non-vintage Champagne and Ports, and then blended to take advantage of the unique strengths of the different harvests.
This summer has brought significant changes to Gamble Family wines, as it continues to evolve to face the challenges of being an independent in an increasingly competitive corporate environment. In June, longtime winemaker Jim Close, who has made every bottle of Gamble Family wines to date and has been with the company for nearly 20 years, decided to write another chapter.
“Jim felt like he wanted to try something new,” Gamble said. “Though sorry to see him go, we were really fortunate to have him here for 19 years. But he has agreed to help with our transition.”
Gamble began that transition by contracting with Atelier Melka, the superstar wine consulting team headed by Bordeaux-trained and Napa-legend Phillipe Melka. Melka, who has been a part of some of the most highly rated wine projects in Napa over the last three decades, can pick and choose his clients and is a credit to the winery with which he has become involved.
“I have known Phillipe for a number of years, and he was at the top of a very short list,” Gamble said.
Melka brings his team with him, including the Israeli-born winemaker Maayan Koschitzky, who moved to Napa in 2011 and has a resume that includes stints at both Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle.
“Change is evolutionary. This is going to provide stability, giving us a long-term solution that keeps us on a trajectory,” Gamble said.
The plan is to begin releasing wines that are sub-AVA designates and to mine the gold that is the dirt in the vineyards.
“As we have, and continue to, replant our vineyard properties, we do so with the mindset of elevating quality and sustainability,” Gamble emphasized. “Coupled with these intense viticulture endeavors, I’m certain that the Melka team’s expertise will continue to elevate wines of Gamble Family Vineyards in years to come.”
As anyone who has visited the old white barn and winery on the Gamble Family ranch knows, sustainability is a benchmark of the property. Gamble is involved with the Napa Green Winery and Vineyard sustainability projects, and his mother was involved in the revolutionary 1968 classification, which designated that “agriculture is, and should continue to be, the predominant land use and precluded development of urban uses detrimental to the continuance of agriculture.”
“It comes from living with the land,” Gamble said. “My mom was a soldier in the fight to pass the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.”
The fight changed the course of history in the Napa Valley and obviously resonates with Gamble to this day.
Oh, and one other change is about to come. Gamble Family has purchased one of the first all-electric, autonomously driven tractors. Monarch Tractor of Livermore, California is the Tesla of farm equipment.
“When you think about it, a tractor is maybe the most important vehicle on earth. It is what allows food systems to thrive,” he said.
The tractor is a product of modern technology coupled with agrarian tradition — much like Tom Gamble himself.
The Mill Keeper Cabernet Sauvignon MV
In addition to being a fine wine at a reasonable price ($35) for a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, The Mill Keeper project pays homage to the past and Napa’s history through a series of impactful and artistic labels.
Created by artist Mark Summers, who uses a classic technique called scratchboard, the labels harken back to labor performed by some of Napa’s earliest residents to create an agricultural oasis. The wine is a sponsor of the historic Bale Grist Mill in the Valley, which was established in 1849. The Cab is surprisingly supple on the palate, with dramatic dark berries and a finish that is both silky and smooth. This is a Napa Cab made to drink now.