Ask Ren Harris, Paradigm owner and U.S. history buff, what history he finds most interesting, and he’ll tell you his family’s…and he’s not kidding.
A True Californian Six generations back on his father’s side, he counts among his relatives, José Carrillo who came to California as part of the Portolá expedition and was later married by Father Junipero Serra. Skip ahead a few generations to when California was teeming with Mexican land grants and you’ll learn that the great-granddaughter of José, Francisca Benicia married General Mariano Vallejo. Her sister would marry Ren’s great-great grandfather, also named Ren Harris, a Scot who was a land surveyor in Santa Barbara. The relatives on Ren’s mother’s side are equally intriguing with an Irish-born great-great-great grandfather who wrote the famous war song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home. And just two-generations back, Ren’s maternal grandfather Joseph McKenna worked with renowned horticulturist, John Mclaren on the development of Golden Gate Park, while his paternal grandfather patrolled the streets of San Francisco as a police officer—one who was captured in a famous Dorothea Lange photograph.
It Started with a Stamp The oldest of five, Ren credits his father for piquing his interest in history through stamp collecting—each one had its own origins to study. By the time Ren was in high school he’d developed a deeper appreciation for history, and for mathematics—the latter would hold him in good stead throughout his life. It was in high school when he met his wife-to-be, Marilyn Pelissa, who had her own rich California history. Her family had established farming businesses 125 years ago, including a Yountville ranch that was purchased in 1936, where they moved after marrying and starting a family.
The Land of Sunshine and Grapes About to participate in his 60th harvest, Ren recounts how in those early days of working on a 700-acre ranch it was like running a small town, with its orchards, dairy, and vineyards. He liked it enough to stay and soon he and Marilyn bought a 30-acre prune orchard that would become Paradigm. A natural statesman, Ren became involved in the area’s civic clubs, the Farm Bureau, and the formation of the Ag Preserve—all while selling real estate with Jean Phillips, who, like Ren, would later go on to establish her own winery.
Cultivating the Future All of Ren’s work with these different groups prepared him for taking action on matters that would have a lasting impact. In 1969 he presented the idea of an insurance plan for farmworkers and their families—an act that helped shift a workforce from mostly transient to predominantly permanent. Six years later, as then-president of the Farm Bureau, Ren would create his greatest contribution to Napa Valley’s modern history—the formation of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Ren along with a dozen other farmers gathered in his living room gave rise to the organization. Ren counts among his, and its successes, the work to establish the American Viticultural Appellation laws still adhered to today, and the efforts that led to the California Department of Agriculture’s Crush Report, which helped separate Napa Valley as a distinctive . He adds with a sly smile, “I was the one who got the phone number, 944-8311, that’s still being used.”
There is no question that Napa Valley’s history is richer with Ren’s contributions. Summing up his experiences, he quotes a favorite Jimmy Buffet song, “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life along the way.”
organic progress with Tom Davies
V. Sattui Winery in Napa Valley, which hosts 300,000 visitors a year, farms 350 acres of vineyard – all of which are being converted to fully organic. Inspired by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Climate Science Seminar, Ahead of the Curve, the recently released film, Children of the Vine, and extreme weather events, Tom Davies, president and part owner, and Dario Sattui, owner, were moved to act and transform their business operations. From removing plastic water bottles and adding a refill station, using all compostable deli containers and cutlery, implementing a rewarding ridesharing program, to a wine bottle recycling program, and more, they are laying the groundwork for a climate-conscious business.
Many of the winery’s vineyards were certified Napa Green and Fish-Friendly nearly 15 years ago, and the 28-acre Vittorio’s Estate Vineyard next to V. Sattui, earned Certified California Organic Farming (CCOF). Last year, the 22-acre estate vineyard at Castello di Amorosa was certified CCOF, and the 20-acre Mount Veeder vineyard began the certification process. The quest to convert V. Sattui and Castello di Amorosa combined 350 acres was the next step. (The wineries are separate entities, but farming for both is under the same umbrella.)
To become certified CCOF the process takes about three years. There will be an initial financial impact, which includes new equipment and labor, and there will be risks, like grape yields in rocky areas where soil nutrition was boosted by conventional nutrients. However, having learned from farming Vittorio’s Estate Vineyard organically the last 12 years, the outcome is better soils with better water retention – important as they look forward to future water restrictions. Other benefits include healthier soil microbes and vines that become more resistant to pest and disease, as well as carbon sequestration. Healthier soils, stronger vines, and carbon sequestration, the benefits of regenerative farming, make our entire ecosystem better.
exit plans with Barbara Gabel and Zach Zachowski
Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel
Barbara Gabel and Zach Zachowski had lived in the Oakland Hills for over 30 years when they decided to exit Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, the business they founded in 1983, which is now 100% employee owned. They looked all over the world, including the US, New Zealand and Canada for the next place to call home before finding a property in Napa. The land they purchased and built a home on had the qualities they were seeking, but it also came planted with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes. Becoming grape growers was not part of the plan but for Zach, who had grown up in semi-rural Wisconsin, easing into the life of gentleman farmer was a natural transition.
They quickly formed friendships with other grape growers, including the beloved, late Steve Moulds and his wife Betsy. Steve encouraged Barbara and Zach to promote Napa Valley as often as possible. “When balloons landed at his house, he’d greet them with Champagne,” Barbara mentions, “Steve would say, ‘this is what people will remember about Napa Valley’.” Steve was a role model in other ways too, including his and Betsy’s dedication to giving back to the community.
As former owners of a small business, and now small growers, Barbara and Zach support the Napa Valley Grapegrowers because its efforts foster those types of small businesses. Barbara says, “The organization promotes camaraderie among growers; competitors are good about sharing information with each other.” Barbara and Zach are thoughtful about their philanthropy and target local organizations using three criteria: where a contribution will make a difference, where it is most deserved, and where it will be well spent.
Now as they begin to make another type of “exit plan,” they are relying on the same formula they used with their business, which is to build a good foundation, maintain success, and create a solid exit plan. Otherwise, Zach warns, “It’s like taking a beautiful ride on a horse only to fall off and ruin the dismount at the end.”
A decade after making Napa their home, Barbara says they wake up happy every day. Looking back, she says, “The best thing I ever did was give Zach my phone number in 1975 when he asked for it. It is all so fun. We feel blessed to live here.”
wildfire impact with Marjorie and Gordon Burns
Marjorie and Gordon Burns
Following billions of dollars of losses to the wine industry stemming from wildfire smoke in 2020, we partnered with ETS Laboratories to study wildfire impact on wine grapes. The results of this study will set much needed benchmarks, to help prevent future economic catastrophe. This partnership has already generated the largest collection of baseline samples in the world, and the research will achieve greater understanding of how grapes interact with wildfire smoke to influence picking decisions and even insurance reform. It has been a ground-breaking effort, and we are grateful to Marjorie and Gordon Burns, founders and owners of ETS Laboratories for their dedication to it, and also for their long-time sponsorship of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
Marjorie and Gordon, recognize that the industry’s success is ETS’s success, which is why they are such staunch supporters of growers and producers. “As long as we focus on the needs of our clients and continue to provide education and put analysis into perspective, as well as deliver growth and dependability, ETS will be sustainable.”
This is no small feat in an industry that has evolved dramatically since ETS was formed in 1978 in Marjorie’s basement. In the ensuing 45 years, the couple has not only observed the wine industry grow and change, they’ve also been instrumental in its growth through innovation in analysis—on a global scale.
More recently, the Burns and their diverse staff, many of whom have worked at ETS for decades, embarked on the wildfire impact study. Still in a stage when academics are trying to identify the compounds that arise from smoke exposure, ETS has originated analysis to define the markers that measure the extent of exposure to wildfire smoke. The Burns investment of time and money on this project, was another action they took to support our industry—support that was reciprocated when ETS faced its own wildfire emergency.
In September 2020, as ETS began collecting the world’s largest library of wildfire-impact samples, the lab became the home for 15 or 16 fridges and freezers to hold the samples. And then the season’s second major fire erupted. St. Helena, where the samples were, faced evacuation, ETS staff couldn’t get to work, and the power became unreliable. Gordon mentioned to a client that the samples needed to be moved. The client’s reply was, “I got it.” That night, while fires were ravaging the surrounding hillsides, the same client returned to ETS with two 40-foot flatbed trucks and a crew. They moved everything and when the ordeal was over refused payment of any kind.
The Burns are clearly passionate about their work. And while the best wines may be made at the intersection of art and science, the best communities are where neighbors supporting neighbors reigns supreme.
Architecture and Art with Suzanne Groth
Architecture and Art with Suzanne Groth
When Judy and Dennis Groth left Santa Clara, once idyllic farmland that was slowly turning into urban sprawl, for Napa Valley it was a tough transition for Napa Valley Grapegrowers Board Director Suzanne Groth. As a teenager she wasn’t thrilled about moving to a former dairy farm. But later, as an adult there was no resisting the siren call of Oakville. In between Suzanne ventured away to study art and to paint before returning to Napa Valley. And after a couple of decades working for her parents, she took the helm as President and CEO of Groth Vineyards & Winery when her father retired in 2017. Today, her imprint on Groth, and the Oakville region, is as present as her striking paintings that grace the walls of the iconic winery.
But ask Suzanne to tell you about her art, and she begins her story by talking about her mother, who passed away in 2021. Judy, similar to other women who moved to Napa Valley to build a winery with their husbands in the 1970s and 80s, was instrumental in the construction and design of Groth. Judy had a fascination with California’s missions, which influenced the winery’s architecture and its pastel peach shade. And it wasn’t just the silhouette and color that inspired Judy, she was also drawn to the fountains, the exposed beams, and the wide corridors of the missions—all which is evident from the moment you cross Groth’s threshold onto the richly hued Spanish tiles to when you peer down upon the profusion of wisteria that when in bloom turns the courtyard into a work of art. Judy managed those millions of details while raising three teenagers in a new place—one that she and her husband invested their entire savings in.
When Suzanne was young, it was Judy who put paints in her hand and later, when Suzanne gifted her mother one of her boldly colored paintings, Judy said, “I know what I’m going to do with this.” She transformed it into the announcement for the next Groth release party. It was a hit and every year afterward Suzanne was asked to paint a new one for that year’s event. Among Suzanne’s admirers were Denise DeBartolo York and John York, who commissioned her to paint three works of art for the Forty-Niners stadium in Santa Clara.
Today, Suzanne mostly paints for her own enjoyment--running the winery and being a mother, she doesn’t have time to pursue her talents on a commercial basis. When she does paint, it’s mostly watercolors and it’s mostly as an escape from the news or politics. It’s easy to imagine that those paintings are as captivating as her earlier vibrant work, so hopefully those watercolors will find their place on the walls of Groth sometime soon.