An Interview with Mike Hendry
When it comes to getting a first-hand account of the Napa wine industry – where it’s been, where it’s at, where it’s going – the Hendry family provides a valuable resource. It has harvested the same plot of vineyard since 1939. With over 70 harvests under its belt, the family has both a firm attachment to the land and keen insight into the ways and whims of those in the business.
In researching his report on “Next Generation Napa” (slated to run in the February/March edition of Quench), Contributing Editor Tod Stewart interviewed five “next generation” Napa wine personalities. Mike Hendry was the first to respond to our enquiry, and his answers to our questions provide a revealing look at Napa past, present, and future.
Quench: When people think of Napa they may envision it as the “elder statesman” of the Cali wine community – established, reliable, upscale and more or less set in its ways. How accurate a picture would this be? Are there things going on “behind the scenes, as it were, in Napa that the average wine consumer might not be aware of? If so, what?
Mike Hendry: In many ways, Napa is not as old or established or set in its ways as people think. As a wine region, it did start around 1860, but much of Napa’s early development was wiped out by prohibition. There was considerably more vineyard in Napa in 1890 than there was in 1970, and through the 40s 50s and 60s raising sheep, cattle, and other livestock was a much bigger business than growing grapes. As late as 1960, prunes were a more valuable crop than grapes. Napa in the modern sense really began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The “upscale” side of Napa is also fairly new. My grandparents paid $11,000 for 120 acres of land near the town of Napa in 1939. Most people would say that was a good buy, but they forget that land in Napa still wasn’t worth much in 1970. In 1978, a good vineyard acre in Napa was worth around $2,800. In 1994 the value was around $15,000, and by 2006 vineyard values had ballooned to around $250,000 an acre. It is only in the last 15 years that Napa has become upscale and expensive.
Napa has never been the same for long. It began with Mission as the predominant grape. By the 1880s it was Zinfandel. In 1964 the most widely planted grape was Petite Sirah. In 1992 it was Chardonnay, and today it is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Q: Napa has garnered a reputation based (largely) on the Bordeaux model with Chardonnay flying the flag for whites. Again, is this an accurate way to see things, or is the region taking a more experimental approach to grape varieties?
M.H.: I’m not sure that is an accurate way to see things either. Even though Chardonnay was Napa’s most widely planted grape in 1992, it is only around 11 per cent today. There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon is Napa’s dominant grape today, but it is not as well established as most people think. Between 1983 and 1998, on an average basis the price of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa was almost exactly the same. It is only in the last 15 years that Cabernet Sauvignon has become more expensive.
I think that one of the biggest problems with Napa today is that as a grower, you get paid more to produce terrible Cabernet than really good Chardonnay. On an average basis, the value of Cabernet is more than double the value of Chardonnay.
I think there has been very little experimentation or imagination with grape varietals in Napa in the last 15 years. Many different grape varietals grow here, but most of them exist in very small quantities. Grapes like Albarino have appeared recently and made some headway, but still account for very little of Napa’s grape production.
Q: Sustainable, organic, biodynamic – buzzwords we hear more and more. To what extent are Napa winemakers, such as yourself, embracing these practices? Is it practical to farm this way, or does it depend on the unique topography of your vineyards – microclimate, soil composition, etc?
M.H.: In 2014, we will have been growing grapes on the Hendry vineyard for 75 years. I think this provides us with a rare perspective on what it means to be sustainable. Consumer concern with farming practices is extremely important, but unfortunately, the interest and depth of knowledge is often superficial.
Q: Are there any biological issues (insects, etc.) currently threatening vineyards?
M.H.: Certainly. Fungal, viral and bacterial diseases are an ongoing problem. The vine mealybug is a non-native insect that can potentially spread a range of viruses. It is continuing to spread through Napa. Sharpshooters, that spread the bacterial Pierce’s Disease, are an ongoing problem. New viruses are still being discovered. In combination, these biological issues still limit the practical lifespan of Napa vineyards to less than 30 years.
Q: What have been some of the most positive and negative trends impacting the region and its wines?
M.H.: I think that the reputation and recognition of Napa around the world has never been better. As a “brand” Napa has never been healthier.
Land values have ballooned in recent years, and this makes it increasingly difficult for families to hang onto their land. It also makes the wines much more expensive. Much of Napa is now owned by investment groups and publicly traded companies. The vast majority of Napa is farmed by vineyard management companies. Many of the family owned and family built wineries have been sold in recent years. I view all of these things as negatives.
Q: If you were asked to give a description of “The Napa Wine Consumer,” how would you describe him/her? Has this profile changed over the course of your involvement in the industry?
M.H.: I think Napa wine consumers span the full range of wine consumers. They include the very frugal and the big spenders. They include the very knowledgeable and the complete novices, the young and the old. Napa attracts a large share of North America’s wine tourists and people who make food and wine a priority in their travel are generally knowledgeable consumers. Unfortunately, Napa is expensive and this limits its accessibility to some consumers.
Q: Are Napa winemakers such as yourself consciously attempting to change the style of their wines (i.e., lower alcohol, more elegance, etc.) or is the character you’ve established over the years something you’re satisfied with – with perhaps a tweak or two here and there?
M.H.: I think wine styles have constantly changed, and will continue to do so. The same goes with cars, or clothes, or food. With wine, ripeness and the use of oak and sugar are things that seem to move in cycles. Many of Napa’s wines today are made in a very different style than they were 20 years ago. Ultimately, these wine styles are driven by what the consumer wants. Happily, consumers don’t all want the same thing.
Q: What are your current largest markets and has this changed over the past decade or so?
M.H.: The United States is the only major wine producing country in the world that is primarily a domestic market. France, Italy, Spain and Australia rely predominantly on exports. Probably 90% of our wine is sold in the United States. The biggest state is California. There was certainly a shift in the places and the ways that wine was sold through the recession. Restaurants and cities with banking economies took a big hit. New American and Canadian markets are becoming important as consumers become more knowledgeable. Almost all states have at least one winery now, and this is making wine part of the culture in more places.
Q: China is cornering the market in estate Bordeaux. Are Napa reds experiencing an increased demand from Asian markets? If so, what impact has this had on servicing existing markets?
M.H.: China has not been a major export market for our winery. We have sold some wine there. Japan has been a small but steady market.
Q: Has the global economic situation had a significant impact on your sales, or has your customer base been more or less “recession proof”?
M.H.: The recession had a huge effect on our sales. Our sales across all markets showed a steep decline during the early years of the recession. We have seen steady improvement for the last 3 years.
Q: A successful French vintner told me that any wine – made anywhere in any conditions – costing more than $25 (retail – USD) is being “vanity priced.” Comments?
M.H.: This is an interesting and important question, particularly in Ontario. In Ontario, our wines generally cost almost 10 times the price we sold them for. In Napa it generally costs around 25 dollars to make a good bottle of Cabernet, excluding winery overhead. Producers and consumers can both be frustrated by what it costs to purchase a decent bottle of wine.
Q: Where do you see your winery – and the Napa wine community in general – going over the next decade? A bit of an ambiguous question, but interpret as you will. How confident are you that the future holds promise rather than peril?
M.H.: I am very optimistic about the future of our winery. I think we have an excellent vineyard. We have owned most of [it] since 1939, and we control every aspect of the production of our wines. The wines we produce are 100% from our estate. This allows us to provide high quality wine at a good value, and this is something that people recognize. The peril lies in the increasing costs and the pitfalls of being trendy. The downfall of every winery or wine region begins with the perception of producing decent overpriced wine.
Q: In winemaking terms, what would you like to accomplish in the coming years? Is there something you are dying to try but haven’t yet?
M.H.: There is always room for improvement. I believe it is also necessary to adapt to the ever-changing wine market. Vineyards generally change much more slowly than consumer preferences. Staying relevant requires foresight, imagination, and some luck. I am dying to try a few things, but it is a little early to talk about them.
Q: Besides Napa, what winemaking region do you take inspiration from?
M.H.: I have spent a little time in France, Chile and Australia. I went to each place with stereotypes and found that I was completely wrong much of the time. Each trip was educational and inspirational. On these trips I saw problems that I will probably never have, and new solutions to ones I did have. In all cases I learned that growers and producers in other regions face all the same challenges that I do. With each trip I gained respect for the wine and the work of other regions. I wish I had more time for that kind of travel.
For a larger interview with Napa’s next generation pick up the February/March issue of Quench.