Bret in the News. . .

A love of the land

Farmer honored for his ‘passion,’ commitment to grape growing

Bret Munselle, of Munselle Vineyards, picks up grape clusters missed by a vineyard crew during harvest in Geyserville on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010.
Published: Friday, October 1, 2010 at 9:19 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 at 9:19 a.m.
Bret Munselle’s family has owned and worked their Alexander Valley acreage for more than 130 years.
That heritage helps explain why a discussion about estate taxes a few years ago got him so stirred up. His dad had warned that someday they might have to shed some land to pay the tax.
“If we ever sell one piece of this place, I’ll spend the rest of my life getting it back,” Munselle countered.
His father, Bill Munselle, thinks that story cuts to the heart of the 34-year-old grape grower, who has been selected as this year’s Outstanding Young Farmer by the Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
Those who know Munselle describe him as a man who loves his family and the land they farm north of Healdsburg. Curious and driven, he has learned the business of growing and selling grapes. In recent years, he has led the family’s fledgling winemaking business.
“Brett is a total student. He’s always wanting to learn,” said Corey Beck, winemaker at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Alexander Valley.
Beck purchases Munselle family grapes, which he said are consistently among the best the winery buys. He said Munselle represents the next generation, a farmer who is “taking a lead and taking it to the next level.”
Growing up, Munselle helped on his family farm north of Healdsburg, the same land a great-grandfather once tended with horse and plow. Bill Munselle said he attached wooden blocks to the clutch pedals so his three young boys could drive the farm’s tractors.
Munselle graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture business from UC Davis, taking all the viticulture classes they offered. After college, he went to work appraising farms for American Ag Credit’s Santa Rosa office.
That three-year experience boosted his self-confidence, he said, allowing him the chance to succeed outside the family business. It also provided a look at key farm records, including the ways growers and wineries structure grape contracts.
“I was always really curious, so I read a lot of them,” Munselle said.
A dozen years ago, he left appraisal work to join the family business. He and his father farm about 225 acres of vineyards and manage 25 acres for nearby Stryker Sonoma winery and vineyards.
“He certainly has a lot of passion for farming, and he has a lot of pride in being part of a multi-generational farming family,” said Nick Frey, president of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
That family includes grandparents Fred and Ruby Wasson, parents Bill and Reta Munselle, wife Kristen and daughters Maddie and Callie.
Mutual friends introduced Munselle to his future wife while she was living in Southern California. She soon realized that the farm and his family were “his world.”
“I knew he would not be happy anywhere else,” she said.
Munselle’s ancestors produced wine after they first arrived in the valley in 1876. But subsequent generations switched to dairy cattle, prunes, orchards and, in 1972, back to grapes.
The family began producing wine again in 2006 under the Munselle Vineyards label, with the wine made at Stryker Sonoma. Their first vintage of cabernet sauvignon won a gold medal this year in Harvest Fair judging
Bill Munselle calls his son the driving force behind the family winery. “He kind of made that whole thing happen,” he said.
The winery produces about 1,000 cases a year. As the family seeks to build its brand, Munselle is usually the face that greets retail buyers, wholesalers and restaurateurs.
Virtually every bottle of wine he sells involves “a hello and a handshake,” he said.
The new endeavor has opened his eyes to the challenges faced by wineries and has improved his interactions as a grape grower with winery staff.
“It gives a whole new language to talk with the winemakers,” he said.
Guy Eck, Munselle’s former boss and the branch manager at American Ag Credit, said Munselle is the kind of young man you want your daughter to marry: bright, hard-working, considerate, optimistic and personable.
“People just enjoy talking with him because he enjoys people,” Eck said.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.
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