Meet a Farmer: Mike Naggiar of Naggiar Vineyards
Meet Mike Naggiar, Founder and Vineyard Manager for Naggiar Vineyards in Grass Valley, CA. After retiring from Hewlett Packard, he decided to keep his mind and body sharp by starting a vineyard with his wife and today, that vineyard has blossomed into an award-winning winery. Learn more about Mike, how proud he is to see his family name on a bottle of wine and why providing his customers with an experience they’ll remember is so important to him!
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Mike: My wife and I are actually from the Bay Area and I used to work for Hewlett Packard. In those days, about 20 years ago, we had a small vineyard in Saratoga and we did it as a hobby and sold the grapes to a winery. It was something we did on weekends and at the time, I took some courses at UC Davis on growing grapes, but there was no plan to make any wine at all. Then the time came to retire from Hewlett Packard in 1998 and my wife and I decided that we were too young to just retire. So we decided to start a small vineyard and the idea was to grow grapes and sell them to wineries so they could make wine. So we looked up and down the coast for some land because we wanted to do things right and grow premium grapes. We hired a consultant and after about three years, we found a piece of land out here in Grass Valley and our consultant helped us make sure we were able to grow on the land, that we had lots of water and the right infrastructure. We ended up buying 80 acres at the time and the idea wasn’t to make wine because I really like the growing side of things. To this day, I’m don’t do the winemaking but I enjoy growing the grapes. We put in 30 acres of grapes and we made sure that the wine grapes we put in were ideal for the location of the vineyard, which is a big deal in winemaking because in order to make good grapes for great wine, you have to plant the right varietals of grapes in the locations you have. So we specialize in Italian varietals, grapes that make Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo and more. Over the years we started planting more and today, we farm about 60 acres of wine grapes. We sell half of those grapes to other wineries throughout the year and the other half we keep to make our own brand of wines. We also sell our wines direct to the consumers, so we have a great wine club and a lot of people are regulars. Everything is estate grown and everything is done by hand. All of the wines are produced and bottled over here.
CA GROWN: How proud are you that you pick up a bottle of wine that has your name on it?
Mike: If somebody told me 20 years ago that I would be farming grapes and making wine, I wouldn’t believe them. We basically bought 80 acres of land with absolutely nothing on them and it makes us very proud to see how far we’ve come, especially in this area. Within a 100-mile radius, we’re getting very well-known for the quality of our wines and I’m very proud that Napa wineries actually buy our grapes. We grow premium grapes and they’re perfect for making wine, so that makes us very proud.
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Mike: Typically, I would go out and spend time with my foreman and decide what we’re going to do for the day. For example, right now we’re actually pruning the vineyards. Then I’ll come into the office and spend time on the back office stuff like payroll and payables. Then we’ll go down to the winery and we have a couple of guys that help our winemaker make the wine, so we work on tasting the wines or decide on what we’re going to bottle or blending. Then I’ll come back to the office, have a little lunch and do more of the same. Occasionally I go out to see customers and we have restaurants in the neighboring towns that carry our wines, so I’ll make sales calls with our sales manager as well. So we run a full blown small business, everything from growing the grapes from scratch to making the wine and selling it to both consumers and restaurants. On the weekends, it’s basically spending time here in our beautiful tasting room. On Fridays and Saturdays, we’ll get around 200 people that come through here and we have appetizers, live music and more. So we’re not just a winery, people also come out here for the food and music too. My wife and I call the weekends our second shift and we love it.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?
Mike: We do quite a bit locally. We do a lot for locally charities, we donate wine and we raise funds through raffles. For example, when we have our summer concerts, we’ll do a raffle for either the food banks around here or United Way or animal rescue charities. My wife is very into dogs and cats, so we love raising funds for them too. We also donate to the local hospital when they raise funds and we do as much as we can because we are still a small business and don’t have a lot of money, but we do what we can.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the farming profession?
Mike: My wife and I always liked the idea of growing things. When we lived in the Bay Area, we moved a few times and we always had a hand in planting in our backyard because we loved to plant vegetables and flowers and we’ve always loved the outdoors. So when I left Hewlett Packard, the idea was to not get back into the technology industry, but to do something really different. We’ve both worked hard all of our lives and honestly, the idea of retirement has no attraction to us. I will never retire and I love the idea of working, especially outdoors and we love wine, so we decided to do something we both enjoy. We both believe people retire too early and their brains and bodies don’t get stimulated like they should because they don’t have anything to do. And we also wanted to leave something behind for our grandkids. It’s definitely hard work because it’s a business, but it’s not high pressure and there’s no deadlines. You can’t rush the grape growing process because the grapes grow when they want to. They’re on Mother Nature’s schedule, not ours.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you’re not farming?
Mike: We don’t really have a lot of hobbies. The weather has been beautiful here lately, so we like going out for walks when we can. We’ll also go out to local restaurants, go to the movies and visit with friends. I’m 73 and my wife and I traveled the world while I worked for Hewlett Packard, so we don’t do a lot of traveling now. The music and food in the tasting room keeps us busy most weekends, so that’s where we’re at most of the time meeting customers, shaking hands and saying hello to them.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a farmer?
Mike: That’s a great question because many people come out here wanting to know about what we do and how we got to where we are, so there’s a lot of attraction to living in the vineyards and doing what we do. The advice I give them is before you go and do something like we’ve done, try it on a small scale. Plant 200 or 300 vines in your backyard and get to know how to grow grapes for wine and enjoy it. That way you don’t spend too much money in the beginning because you want to make sure you enjoy it before you go and do what we’ve done. After all, it becomes a business and it becomes work. There seems to be a lot of romance with growing grapes and making wine, but unless you do it like we used to in the Bay Area as a hobby with the backyard vines, you’ll soon realize it is a business. It’s a lot of work and if you don’t want to do that or work that much, you’ll realize you’ve made a mistake. So definitely try it on a small scale and see if you’re going to enjoy it first.
CA GROWN: What is something that’s unique about your business or makes it stand out?
Mike: There’s a lot of small wineries that make good wine, but what differentiates us as a winery and grape growing business is we started from scratch and all of our grapes are grown on the estate and all our wines are made from our own grapes. As a result, we can control the quality from the very beginning when we grow and harvest the grapes all the way to making the wine, blending it and putting it in a bottle. There are other wineries that do that, but very few do it all the way like we do. We take particular pride in what we do and we’ve won a lot of medals and awards over the years. Another thing that differentiates us is that we spend a lot of time making sure the customers who come here have a great experience and by experience, I mean the way we treat customers, the way we greet them and the way we make them feel part of our family. Today in business, you not only have to have a great product but you have to supply customers with an experience second to none and that’s how we feel about it. What differentiates one business or one winery from other is the buying experience and how you’re treated as a customer. It’s hard to do day in and day out because you have to have the right business, have great people working for you, make sure they’re trained and have the right personalities.
CA GROWN: What has contributed to your past success and what are you doing to ensure continued success going forward?
Mike: I’m not very big on long-term planning. We do plan a year ahead for the vineyard, but I think the difference is just keeping up what we’re doing by growing the best grapes, selling the best product to other wineries, making the best possible wine that we can and providing the best experience to our customers. In the long term, this is going to end up in the hands of my son, Shawn, and my daughter-in-law, so there isn’t a master plan to grow into a huge winery. We just want to continue doing the best we can and be the best in the business.
CA GROWN: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Mike: I love growing things. We start pruning in January and we harvest in September, so that’s nine months of work. During harvest, we pick the grapes at night and we take them to the winery to make the wine and that’s a great feeling. The other thing is coming to the tasting room on the weekend and visiting with customers and finding out that they came to our place 12 years ago when we used to offer tastings out of our home. They’ll tell us it’s the nicest winery they’ve been to, the wine and food was great and they’re so happy that they keep coming back. That is a big compliment to us and we’re very thankful for them.
CA GROWN: As a California farmer, we know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your farm to care for the land and its resources. What are one or two ways that you’re most proud of or you feel are innovative ways you care for your land?
Mike: My wife and I and my son and his family live here in the middle of the vineyards. So we are very careful with what we do with the land and by that I mean we don’t spray stuff we shouldn’t be spraying because at the end of the day, we live here. This is our livelihood and our home. We don’t till anymore on the slopes because that causes erosion, especially during years with lots of rain like this year, so we only mow the vineyard. The land is, in the long term, what our grandkids are going to inherit and we’re very conscious of that. We’re very blessed in this county with a canal that runs through and provides water to farmers like us and we do all that we can to conserve water since it’s a precious resource.