Milovina Vineyards: Farmer Reality Check
Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson
Surrounded by their manicured fish friendly farmed vineyards, a grove of mature and young olive trees, a compound of historic homes and farm buildings set against the western hills north of Hopland, the Milovina family shares some basic realities of their chosen livelihood. It doesn’t take long to dispel the myth that grape growing is a glamorous way of living.
“While we enjoy farming,” says John, “many people don’t understand what it takes to farm. We feel pressures from the weather, increasing government regulations, how grape prices are set, and uncertainties about selling our crop.”
Brothers Jim and John Milovina, and Jim’s son David, currently farm 40 acres of the original homestead purchased by the family forefathers in the 1950s, as well as additional acreage acquired by John and Jim in the ensuing years. Farming is in their blood and they love doing the work.
The Milovina brothers’ grandfather and father farmed prunes, cherries and pears in the Santa Clara Valley until they were pushed out for new freeway systems that were built to connect the growing Silicon Valley corridor with San Jose and San Francisco. Although retaining their family home in the Bay Area, both Father and Grandfather Milovina found and purchased the Hopland property around 1957. The property included 400 acres, part of which they originally planted in pears, and part of which was eventually transitioned to grapes. Included was about 200 acres of natural habitat. A little to the north Jim and John added another 200 acres of vineyards in the 1980s. In 1981, the original 160 acre pear orchard was sold, and more vineyard property was acquired. The family business became solely a grape farming operation at that time.
The two brothers, Jim, 66, and John, 58, growing up in the Bay Area, spent their weekends and summers with their parents working on the Hopland ranch, which included helping during harvest. “I have great memories of being a kid on our ranch, including first learning to drive an old jeep through the orchards,” says John.
After Jim earned his degree at Cal Poly and married his wife, Lyle, in the 1960s they moved to the Hopland ranch. They still live in the old farmhouse next to a refurbished brick building that was once a smoker. Their two sons are married. Michael, 41, and his wife Cari, raise 10 acres of organic blueberries northeast of Ukiah along the Russian River. They sell them as Mendocino Blues at the Ukiah Farmer’s Market and to Whole Foods stores. David, 39, and his wife Melissa, live in Ukiah and are expecting twins in September. Following in his father’s footsteps, David is an integral part of the family’s grape growing operation.
Prior to joining Jim in Hopland, younger brother, John graduated from San Jose State, and then went to work at a tech company in Silicon Valley. He and his wife Pat moved to Ukiah in 1979. “I was in Silicon Valley when it was just developing,” John recalls, adding, “if you saw photos of what Santa Clara Valley looked like then and now, it is a big difference --all you see today are cities and no farming.” He and Pat have raised three children in Ukiah. Adam, now 24, lives in Sacramento. Kellie, 23, is in San Diego, and Hayley, 19, is at Santa Clara University. Pat volunteers regularly at St. Mary’s School, and teaches tennis to local youth.
“We enjoy farming,” says John, adding that “ you have to farm what does well here and what the market wants. We are limited to what we can grow here in Mendocino County. Pears can be a struggle, and grapes have their issues as well.”
Standing in the long gray metal workshop on the ranch, Jim is grinding out a gear casing to fix the axel on a piece of equipment that tills their organic vineyard block. David assists and John joins the discussion about vineyard farming.
On their 240 acres, the Milovinas grow a wide range of varietals including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot and Syrah.
“You’d think that with such diversification it wouldn’t be hard to sell our grapes but the last two to three years has been a challenge,” says John.
Growers depend on contracts to sell their grapes. From the 1970s to the1990s everyone had contracts and wineries were on the rise. Then the wine market went global, and the competition began for market share. “We have to compete with wines from Australia and Chile, as well as bulk wine juice that wineries can purchase to fill their needs,” says John, adding, “Wineries are buying up other wineries, and what you have now are fewer players to buy grapes. This means lower prices for growers. Even local wineries are buying fruit from outside of Mendocino County, which has forced growers to sell grapes out of County.”
Weather is also a big factor for farmers. Heavy frosts such as those in 2008 can devastate crops. This year when the threat of cutting off water for frost protection loomed over grape growers along the Russian River, the increased rain and small number of frosty nights eased the worry. “Mother Nature helped us out,” says David. “Conservation is a way of life for us farmers from water collection to how our crops are grown,” says Jim. “It’s important because we are conscious of how our growing methods affect the bottom line.”
Being a family business, everyone is involved in the daily operation of the farm, from bookkeeping, spraying, disking, frost protection and winery negotiations, to the eventual harvest. “With government regulations demanding more of growers, we deal with more complicated water rights, air quality, and employment issues,” says John, “Grape growing is not the simple way of life as portrayed in the media.”
Milovina Vineyards sells their sustainably and organically grown grapes to wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino County.
Jim and John worry that young people aren’t going into farming. John sees his kids preferring the opportunities urban areas provide. His daughter Hayley, inspired by her teachers at St. Mary’s, is studying to be a teacher. As he shares this information there is an unspoken sentiment that perhaps she will come back to Ukiah to teach.
The Milovinas have seen agriculture pushed out for housing and industrial development all over the State of California. “Growers are at the bottom of the ladder,” explains Jim.
In my opinion, rather than the bottom rung, farmers are the base of the ladder. Without them we will have to tunr to ffod raised on factory farms.
For more information on Milovina Vineyards contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.TrueMendocinoWine.com.
Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf on the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.
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