Winegrape grower turns to family
Five generations on, vineyard overcomes variety of new and old challenges
By JULIA HOLLISTER
For the Capital Press
GEYSERVILLE, Calif. -- Fifth-generation winegrape grower Bret Munselle is not a gentleman farmer -- he works the same land his great-great-grandfather did more than 130 years ago.
"My typical day begins around 6:30 when I coordinate all the vineyard jobs on our 250 acres," he said. "This includes irrigating, spraying, selling, vineyard information tracking. I have my fingers in a lot of pots."
Although he grew up on the Alexander Valley farm, he hasn't always been in the family business. After graduating from the University of California-Davis with a degree in agricultural economics, he worked in banking as an agricultural appraiser.
His father coaxed his son into the wine side, and in 2001 he decided to stay. Munselle said working for someone else gave him an appreciation for working in the family business.
The family operation -- Wasson Vineyards -- grows Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Primitivo, Petit Verdot and Zinfandel and sells the grapes to Styer Sonoma Vineyards. The winery produces fewer than 1,000 cases annually. Munselle and his parents are in a separate partnership that leases 75 acres from a relative in the area. The family partnership also owns some vineyards and a business operation and produces upscale wines under the Munselle Vineyards label.
"I love the freedom to farm," he said. "There are so many opportunities and no constraints. Working with my family -- 92-year-old grandfather, my parents and my aunt -- is the best part because of the family's willingness to share responsibilities. When you have highs or failures, everyone is around to pick you up or to celebrate with you."
He and his family live down the road from his family's working ranch.
Munselle was named the 2010 Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Tim Tesconi, Sonoma County Farm Bureau community relations coordinator, said the honor was deserved.
"It bodes extremely well for the future of Sonoma County agriculture that high-caliber young people like Bret Munselle are taking the reins of farming and agricultural leadership," he said. "Bret is focused on producing top-tier winegrapes and dedicated to preserving the farmland that defines Sonoma County. He is a respected farmer, devoted family man and industry leader who will set the course for Sonoma County agriculture through much of this century."
Munselle agrees that winegrape growing is a great industry with a great future, but there are challenges. The primary ones are political and environmental issues and those related to water. Government regulations are especially difficult because they are out of the grower's control.
"Those of us in the business are constantly finding ways to be more productive, such as building a wine brand that has a following," he said.
"If I had all the money in the world I would still start my day by getting in my pickup and driving out into the vineyards. Harvest is the best time of the year. It's like having a constant adrenaline rush for two months."
Occupation: Winegrape grower
Hometown: Geyserville, Calif.
Education: Agricultural business degree from University of California-Davis
Family: Wife, Kristen, and two daughters
Quote: "Having grown up in an agricultural environment and this industry, farming has become an integral part of who I am as an individual. I feel satisfaction each day in the work we do, with the knowledge I am honoring my family's heritage and upholding their long-standing commitment to growing high-quality fruit in the Alexander Valley."