Ackerman family turns wine profits into charitable support
L. PIERCE CARSON | Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2012 9:45 pm
Like many other couples before them, Lauren and Bob Ackerman had no intention of launching a wine brand when they moved to Napa Valley in 1994.
They bought a spread in Coombsville, mostly because it could accommodate horses. Sure, it had nine acres of grapevines, but they were sure they could find a home for the fruit and not have to devote much time to vines and wines, save for consuming them.
Bob Ackerman was looking to purchase a horse for his wife, Lauren, who’s an accomplished rider. He found the horse — located on a picture-book 16-acre Coombsville spread that was planted with nine acres of grapes. Bob knew his wife would like the horse, so he bought it. And since the ranch was for sale, he decided to buy it as well, achieving the couple’s wedding vows goal of moving to the Napa Valley.
Bob calls the family’s venture in winemaking “a journey of discovery ... (because) we moved to Coombsville primarily for lifestyle, not because we wanted to make wine.”
But make wine he did. While he sold most of the fruit from the nine acres of Bordeaux varieties, Bob made a few barrels of wine each year, aided and abetted by the late Art Finkelstein, whom Bob called “a lovely, lovely man ... who taught me that making your own wine meant showing what the vineyard expresses (in the bottle).”
The Ackermans talked about their grapegrowing “journey” with friends, fans and media during a gathering this fall at their home. They obviously enjoy membership in the ranks of Napa Valley vintners, talking enthusiastically about the small lot wines produced from 1995 through 2002, then launching a wine brand in 2003 and, at the time, anticipating approval of the Coombsville appellation.
When not occupied with things enological, Bob is managing director of a venture capital firm he founded and Lauren works with area nonprofits. She also breeds and shows quarter horses and western pleasure paints when not helping market Ackerman Family wines.
The Ackermans have two sons who helped their parents develop the new wine company. The oldest, Robert, 25, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and is an officer stationed aboard a Navy destroyer. Alex, at 13, is a budding winemaker, his parents maintain, and, like his dad, an entrepreneur. Alex keeps busy with his organic egg-farming operation, Alex’s Eggzactly Organic, which involves the teenager and about two dozen chickens.
Sharing the bounty
Bob Ackerman says he was encouraged by both Robert Mondavi and Bill Phelps to launch a wine brand. He knew for sure he had to make changes in the vineyard as the old vines were succumbing to phylloxera. Because Coombsville is a water-depleted area, drought-resistant rootstock was ordered, as were a pair of Bordeaux clones with the aim of dropping yields to 3.5 tons per acre.
With respected vineyard consultant Mark Neal agreeing to help with the project, Bob replanted the original nine acres of vines and added two more. “With Mark, we decided we would farm organically,” he noted. They asked Gove Celio to come on board as winemaker for the launch of the new brand, a position he continues to hold. By harvest of 2007, the vineyard had been certified organic.
The Ackermans continue to sell some of their fruit to other area cellars, with Celio producing between 300 and 500 cases each harvest for Ackerman Family Vineyards.
“Because we allow our wines to mature in the barrel for 24 months and then an additional two years in the bottle before we release, our grapes have the luxury of time to develop the subtle, rich fruit flavors that produce a sophisticated, elegant wine,” Lauren said.
“This process of taking our time brings out the best of what our organic-certified vineyard can create and our 2007 cabernet sauvignon is a prime example.”
Both Bob and Lauren feel strongly about giving back to the community they cherish. When they decided to make and sell wine commercially, the Ackermans resolved to donate net proceeds from the new venture to address community needs.
Lauren is a former board chairwoman and trustee of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, a philanthropic “bank” of donations by individuals, families, corporations, and nonprofit organizations and governed by a board of directors that determines what the strongest needs in a community are — funding grants accordingly. All net profits from the sales of Ackerman Family Vineyards wine go to their fund at the Community Foundation. As each vintage grows in size, so will the donations to the Community Foundation, Lauren points out.
At the gathering this past fall, attendees got to taste all the wines made to date, from 1995 to the current 2007 release. While the small lots produced for family and friends offered great promise, the commercial releases showed off the vineyard’s pedigree right out of the chute.
The 2003 cabernet sauvignon displayed the silky tannins one usually associates with Stags Leap a few miles on up the road, and had a remarkable long finish of cherries and cassis. Each of the succeeding vintages offered deep, rich black fruit with accents of each harvest tweaking the wine with added spice or more intense fruit flavors. The silky tannins returned in vintage 2006, a feminine cabernet. But it was the current release from harvest 2007 that had everyone oohing and aahing. A royal red cab full of ripe plums and blackberries with notes of holiday baking spice, this four-star offering from Ackerman Family Vineyards is a silky, seductive blockbuster.
All of the Ackerman Family cabs are $75 and can be found at Back Room Wines and the Oxbow Wine Merchant, on lists at Cole’s Chop House, La Toque and Auberge du Soleil and online at ackermanfamilyvineyards.com.
As Bob is a fan of super Tuscan blends, he and the winemaker blended some of the 2007 cabernet with 2007 sangiovese from Luna Vineyard. Initially made for Napa Valley Vintners’ winter trade auction, Premiere Napa Valley, this outstanding blend (60/40) called Alavigna Tosca shows Bob may be on to something. The crowd loved it, encouraging the Ackermans to add this to the cellar lineup with upcoming harvests. From the reaction that afternoon, it appears they got the message.