Meet Mike Wolf, our New Vineyard Manager
Titled 2015 Napa Valley Grower of the Year, Seven Apart proudly welcomes Mike Wolf as our new Vineyard Manager.
Mike Wolf’s path to wine growing was not exactly straightforward. In fact, in his own words, he came to wine in quite a “convoluted, roundabout way”. Yet almost five decades later, Mike is one of Napa Valley’s most celebrated viticulturists. In 2015, he received the honorary title of ‘Napa Valley Grower’ of the Year by Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG). With a reputation for elevating great sites into iconic vineyards, we are thrilled to welcome Mike as our new Seven Apart Vineyard Manager. From studying in a liberal arts college in upstate New York to spending countless days pruning vines in the blazing sun, this is the story of Mike Wolf
From History to Horticulture
Mike grew up outside New York City and earned his B.A. in History from Alfred University in 1971. At that stage, wine growing was not exactly on his mind.
“One of my primary focuses in college was avoiding any classes related to math or science. It just was not what I was interested in at that point in my life,” he confesses.
Instead, Mike wanted to go remote. Not the way we know it today, with a laptop in a coffee shop. Rather, he wanted to live off the land, far away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. After graduating and saving for a year, Michael and two college friends made their way west, settling on 40 remote acres in Mendocino County.
“40 acres for $12,500! It wouldn’t be possible today. At that time, there was nothing there. The biggest take-home lesson for me was that if you didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen,” says Mike.
Not too long after, he met a farmer named Adrian in the nearby town of Ukiah, who offered him a ranch job on his small 60-acre fruit farm. Over the next four years, Mike worked sporadically on Adrian’s farm, planting pears, prunes, and grapes. With time, Mike wanted to swap out his subsistence lifestyle for his next great adventure. When he decided to try his hand at ranching, Adrian helped him get his first official position as a laborer at Mendocino Vineyard Co. in Ukiah.
“It was sort of a ‘right place, right time’ situation. This was Andy Beckstoffer’s first venture in Mendocino County, and Adrian recommended me to the General Manager. Despite my lack of education or expertise, he took a chance on me,” explains Mike.
It was at Mendocino Vineyard Co. that Mike became serious about pursuing a career in viticulture: “The work just made immediate sense to me. As I couldn’t afford to go back to school, I made it my mission to learn everything I could learn. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know how to find out.”
Mike recalls that one of the biggest challenges was learning how to prune. Luckily, his fellow team members were supportive and taught him how to do it:
“It was hard. You go to sleep at night, and your hands are numb from holding the secateurs all day. And then you wake up in the morning and do it all over again. Another key learning that has served me until today was understanding what the field workers were all about. And what it felt to be out in the sun for 10 hours in a row for six days a week,” he reflects.
After spending three years at Mendocino Vineyard Co. in Ukiah, Michael was up for a new challenge. Again, his lack of a viticulture degree meant a job didn’t come easy. After several years of rejected applications, he finally got his lucky break.
“One day I met another Andy. Andy was a General Manager of a big project in the eastern part of Napa County that was owned by a small gas and oil company. It was a huge project. The land itself was 4300 acres. Imagine 4300 acres in Napa County!” smiles Mike. According to Andy, their goal was to plant about 1000 acres under vine, of which only 300 acres had been planted. Unlike so many of his previous prospects, Mike stood out to Andy thanks to his experience. “It’s like we were made for each other,” laughs Mike.
After a six-month probationary period to prove his skill set, Mike was officially signed on as a Vineyard Supervisor at Pope Valley Vineyards. During his twelve years there, he was charged with transforming wooded grazing land into productive vineyards and garnered extensive experience in all facets of vineyard development and management. Over a decade later and some 900 acres planted to vine, Mike received a call out of the blue from his old friend Mr. Beckstoffer. Beckstoffer was starting a new project and Mike was the man for the job.
In the following three-year stint as Vineyard Manager for Beckstoffer Vineyards in Napa, Mike oversaw the planning and implementation of all viticultural operations on 700 acres of vineyard – including the replanting of To Kalon.
“Andy Beckstoffer and I knew it would never be a long-term job for me as there was a ceiling to it. But it was great work and I got to meet literally dozens of winemakers that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise,” explains Mike.
In January of 1997, Michael became President of the start-up vineyard management and business services company Emmolo Vineyard Management. “This was a great job but required managing about 125 acres. After years of working on much larger scale projects such as Pope Valley, I was ready for something more, so I launched Michael Wolf Vineyard Services in September of that same year.”
Through his full-service vineyard management company, Mike farms approximately 700 acres of Napa Valley vineyards for quality-oriented clients, including large and small growers and several wineries – such as Seven Apart.
Enter The Wolf
In June 2021, Mike joined as Vineyard Manager for Seven Apart. One of his first key projects has been replanting the Base Camp vineyard. For Mike, this opportunity to start from scratch is what excited him most about working with us: “Both the vineyards and the winery are being redeveloped, so that’ll be neat to watch this come along and see it grow up.”
Seven Apart also meant Mike and our winemaker Andy Erickson could work together:
“Andy and I knew each other before and work very well together. While some winemakers tend to talk in vague terms, Andy is not like that. He’s got a good understanding of what goes on in the vineyard and a largely hands-off approach to how we get there. I think he’s developed enough confidence in us to know that the work will get done correctly and in a timely way,” shares Mike.
At the moment, one of the biggest challenges that Mike has to mitigate is the ongoing threat of wildfires. Just this June, there was yet another fire along Atlas Peak:
“My whole mindset has switched from focusing on slow late-ripening to encouraging the fruit to ripen earlier so we can avoid the higher fire risk that comes later in the season. The challenge is to do this without compromising quality. Inevitably, Mother Nature is 100% in control. All of the things you do should cooperate with her rather than trying to outsmart her,” ends Mike.
Today, Mike is on the board of trustees for the California Grower Foundation, a past president, vice president, and director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, and a member of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture and the Napa Valley Viticultural Technical Group. He also serves on the board of directors for the Napa Valley Farm Workers Foundation. With almost 50 years of viticulture to his name, Mike is one of the foremost wine growers in Napa Valley – and he certainly doesn’t need a piece of paper to prove it.