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With Priest Ranch, Craig Becker Is Betting on Honesty

"No one needs a new wine brand," explained Craig Becker, a veteran Napa Valley winegrower, over breakfast one recent morning. We were discussing the market for expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. Even though Napa Valley produces less wine than most people realize — it accounts for just four percent of California's yield — the region produces plenty of high-end offerings. Napa Valley is home to more than 500 wineries, and the average price for a bottle of "Napa Cab" shipped directly to consumers exceeds $80. Yet Becker is betting that one of his latest projects, Priest Ranch, will thrive.

His blueprint is simple: it relies on good grapes and honesty. Considering Becker's track record, his plan will almost certainly succeed.

Becker grew up in Southern California and always loved the outdoors. When it came time for college, he headed north, mainly in search of great mountain biking. After a stint at a junior college in Santa Rosa, Becker enrolled at the University of California, Davis, to study soil science and plant physiology.

In 1996, during his final year at school, Becker landed a harvest internship at Robert Mondavi Winery. He stayed on through graduation, and the next year, he was hired as the assistant winemaker at Spring Mountain Vineyard, one of Napa Valley's most historic properties. At the conclusion of harvest, however, Spring Mountain's head winemaker departed to launch his own brand. So even though Becker was just 23, he was put in charge.

Fortunately, Spring Mountain Vineyard had two of the wine industry's smartest consultants on retainer — Daniel Roberts, an accomplished soil scientist, and David Ramey, a legendary vintner. Becker credits both for his obsession with quality fruit.

"Everyone says this, but it's all about the grapes," Becker explained. Thanks to Ramey, Becker learned that with good fruit, he could ignore much of what he learned in college and instead rely on ancient winemaking techniques. Becker began to see himself as a grower first and a winemaker second.

"Viticulture is the art of bonsai," he continued, sharing one particular lesson. "You shrink a weed, over and over again, to see if you can get it to produce great wine."

Many people began taking notice of Becker's work. In 1999, he decided to take on a few other projects as a consultant. Within five years, he had accumulated nearly a dozen clients, helped launch several wine projects, and created his own brand, Highflyer.

In 2004, Becker visited Priest Ranch, a 638-acre property in the eastern mountains of Napa Valley, to source Grenache for Highflyer. He fell in love with Priest Ranch's fruit and became fast friends with the owner, Allan Chapman. The following year, Chapman purchased an adjoining 990-acre property and hired Becker to make some wine. Their families also hit it off, so in 2008, Becker and Chapman formally merged their brands.

Today, Priest Ranch produces about 10,000 cases of wine, a quarter of which is Cabernet Sauvignon. Becker hopes to double Priest Ranch's output over the next decade. Considering the market's reception of his wines thus far, that goal seems reasonable.

"My message to wine buyers is, 'you can trust Priest Ranch," Becker explained. "We'll always use estate fruit, so we'll always deliver value when you consider the quality and price."

With this declaration, Becker was not so subtly criticizing the many brands that have sacrificed quality to keep up with demand. With 215 acres under vine -- and plenty of room to grow -- Priest Ranch will never have to look outside its own estate for fruit.

"We're focusing on trust," Becker continued. "In a world of so many choices, that's what will lead to brand recognition and loyalty from buyers."

Becker's price point is also smart. Priest Ranch's Cabernet retails for $42, so on restaurant wine lists, sommeliers can easily offer the wine for under $100.

Becker just finished his 18th harvest. Success breeds success, so his optimism about Priest Ranch isn't surprising. What is surprising, though, is just how obvious his plan seems.



David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named "Best Overall Wine Blog" at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Grape Collective.



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