Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube

Moving it Forward: How the vineyards found this YF&R

Issue Date: October 27, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman
August D’Amato came to California for an internship six years ago and ended up sticking around. She’s now an assistant viticulturalist and the chair of the Napa County Young Farmers and Ranchers.
Photo/Courtesy August D’Amato

August D'Amato didn't find the vineyards so much as the vineyards found her.

"I did fall into vineyards and farming all by chance," D'Amato said. "After college, I was having a difficult time finding a full-time job. I had moved out to California in 2015 for an internship, which ultimately turned into a career for me."

The Delaware native has dual bachelor's degrees, in plant science and agricultural education, from the University of Delaware, along with a master's degree in agronomy from Iowa State University. Today, she's the assistant viticulturalist at Barbour Vineyards in Napa County. She's also tending to the next generation of Napa County grape growers, as chair of the Napa County chapter of Young Farmers and Ranchers.

A day in the life of D'Amato involves a lot of driving.

"I'm in charge of scouting all of our properties," she said. "We have approximately 60 different properties, which varies between developmental stages to vineyards that had been planted over 50 years ago. A typical day or week for me is getting through all of those ranches, taking notes on the health and status of the plants, and then providing recommendations to our growing team."

Like most other Napa County grape farmers, D'Amato has seen wildfires ravage the world-famous grape-growing region multiple times since 2017.

"We've seen a huge impact in our county—not just in the vineyards, but in our infrastructure," D'Amato said. Last year, in "the Glass Fire and the LNU Complex Fire, a lot of our properties were pretty badly affected—meaning we lost some entire vineyards. Some of our clients lost houses."

D'Amato's farm lost a significant amount of fruit to the fires, she said, mostly through exposure to wildfire smoke. Testing of grapes showed a higher level of compounds—especially guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, the two prime suspects in smoky wine flavor—which would render any resulting wine undrinkable.

"We did have to drop a significant amount of fruit, which is extremely disheartening," she said, noting that about 50% of her operation's cabernet was lost to smoke exposure. "I say cabernet specifically because a lot of people had already harvested white varieties before the fires."

She said she knows some people who lost their entire crop and "ended up dropping all of their fruit or not picking it."

Dealing with the issue going forward, D'Amato said, goes back to dealing with climate change.

"As a farmer, that's something that we deal with daily, is the ever-changing climate," D'Amato said. Thanks to the experiences of the past few years, she added, "now we have to think about fire."

That means fire mitigation work such as weeding and building defensible spaces around property. But solutions for grape growers' other main fire headache remain elusive.

"There's not really much we can do as far as preventing smoke taint," D'Amato said. "I think that's something that a lot of us are looking to the industry with questions of how do we take care of this in the future? If we have another fire again and we hadn't picked the fruit, what can we do to prevent that, or protect the fruit? Right now, there's not any answers on that."

One place where D'Amato has found common ground with others is YF&R. She first got involved when the Napa County outpost was revived in 2019.

"I really fell in love with the group immediately," D'Amato said. "The first meeting that we had, I believe there was about 20 of us. Quite a few of them I had known from other experiences."

She's been a regular at YF&R meetings since then. She was elected secretary and fundraising lead in 2020 before being elected chair this year.

Her YF&R chapter has been focused on giving back to the community, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

"Right when the pandemic happened, we were trying to find a way to give back, and specifically more in the food-security aspect of it," D'Amato said.

Napa County YF&R was referred to Mission Farm, a 2.5-acre organic farm run by volunteers from St. John's Lutheran Church in Napa. All food goes straight to Napa County Food Bank, D'Amato said, adding that the farm wanted to expand. So YF&R jumped in.

"We were able to get our group involved on Saturdays as regular participants," she said, "and then this year as well, we added on Thursday evening."

Her favorite aspect about YF&R is "definitely the networking," she said.

Napa County is unique in that "we pretty much all grow winegrapes," D'Amato said. "At least 90% of us work in some aspect of the wine industry. It's really been neat to know other farmers who are experiencing the same thing that I am and discussing really typical topics like the weather or soil profiles—what are you seeing in the field?"

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




Special Reports

Features

Series

Special Issues

Special Sections