In 2000, when start-up guru Chuck McMinn arrived in Napa Valley to embark on a second career as a vigneron, the man who once worked at Intel and later as CEO of early DSL provider Covad Communications encountered a community of humble farmers so focused on the minutiae of growing, harvesting and fermenting grape juice that the world had passed them by.
“We purchased two vineyards. They would send out paper letters to all their customers with blank order forms and ask people to fill them out by hand and fax them back with a credit card number on it. That was state of the art,” McMinn says. “The web had been live for ten years and browser technology was five years old.” Napa Valley wasn’t low-tech back then, it was no-tech.
Rob McMillian, the founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, recalls those days well. “Back then probably 30 percent of my clients still used paper ledgers for their accounting,” he says. “They didn’t even own a PC.”
Ever the trendsetter, McMinn’s first order of business was funding Cultivate Systems, a web-based ordering system that, to this day, moves a couple million dollars for product wineries in the U.S. every year. It took McMinn sometime to fully understand just why the vineyard owners and farmers around Napa were so resistant to the digital world.
“Fundamentally, to make great wine you must be a great farmer,” McMinn told Salon. “Fifty percent of what great wine is, is where vines are planted, the terroir — right place, right varietal, right root stock. Twenty-five percent is weather, in any particular year. Twenty-five percent is the skill of the winemaker, turning grape juice into wine. That and technology aren’t tightly coupled. People here aren’t anti-technology. They’re a ‘show me’ group. Getting distracted could compromise the quality of the product. They don’t want that.”
Sixteen years later, Napa continues to make, arguably, the most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignons in the world (not to mention renowned Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc) and it is the most technologically forward-thinking winemaking region in the world. Those old hippie vintners have have fully embraced digital technology and are using it to make their previously big businesses into titanic money-making operations. Others have noticed that there’s gold in Napa’s hills — some of, if not the best, Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. Massive beverage companies (long purveyors of the generic jug) have recently discovered that Millennials value premium drinks, so they are in speculation mode, buying small vineyards and labels for hundreds of millions of dollars. Moguls from winemaking strongholds like Burgundy have invaded, paying upwards of $250K per acre for a foothold in Napa Valley. And the area has also been become home to a new wave of tech billionaires eager to try their hand at winemaking. All of which is a validation for McMinn and a handful of other trendsetters who’ve lead Napa into modernity, but it raises the stakes as well.
Napa has become a leader in wine-world innovation — in part because of its proximity to UC Davis, which boasts a leading viticulture and enology school and in part because of its proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. David Duncan, the CEO of Silver Oak Cellars, one of Napa’s leaders in high tech and sustainable winemaking, adds that Napa benefits from some cultural similarities to the Bay Area’s tech community. Long before open-source code was a thing, the open-sharing information was standard in Napa winemaking community — and now, as a result, nearly every winery is engaged in efficient, high-tech winemaking.