Human side of a tough situation
If you’ve never risked it all to realize a dream – never had to juggle bills to make a payroll or had your livelihood hinge on the weather, banks and volatile market conditions – it’s difficult to understand what Dennis Ball is going through today.
I spoke with Ball last week in my office. He was there to explain why he’d filed for Chapter 11, a bankruptcy that allows you to buy some time to work things out while keeping your business open. During the hour-long conversation on banks and grapes, the silver-haired owner of Indian Springs Vineyards promised to fight. Not for himself, but for those who have depended on him for more than two decades.
An Oregon bank was seeking to place the Penn Valley winery in receivership last week, alleging that the company had defaulted on more than $4 million in loans. That same day, Ball filed for court protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy laws.
The legal wrangling will likely take time to sort itself out, and Ball has no plans to shut the doors on his tasting room. And canopy management to protect his 225 acres of vineyard from mildew and other natural predators continues in preparation for September’s harvest.
Amid all of this, Ball attended a baptism for one of his employee’s children over the weekend. A Hispanic family of seven brothers (one of them celebrating his 20th anniversary with Indian Springs) has been with him almost from the beginning. “These guys have gone from being teenagers to being full-time managers,” said Ball, pausing to control himself as he reflected on the human side of business management and the responsibility that comes with it.
Ball’s foray into the wine business followed the roundabout way of the vine. “I grew up on a small farm, and we raised walnuts and other crops,” he remembered. Leaving the farm, he went into the construction business with a brother and friend. “Most of our work was on agricultural-related projects,” he said. “We built dams, tunnels, pipelines and canals. It was rewarding for me to do a project and go back and see a land that was desert become very productive.”
Ball left the construction business and took a year off. “I was burned out,” he said. “My first endeavor after that was with walnut orchards, but then I started looking at grapes through a friend. I spent almost a year educating myself, looking at other vineyards and vineyard property. I met with so many brokers I started taking notes. Eventually the brokers started calling me to ask my opinion on various properties.”
Sometime around 1981, Ball’s travels brought him to Nevada County. “I was here visiting my in-laws. They had purchased some property and wanted to build a home. In the process, I met a well-known Realtor who was a retired farmer. I told him I was looking for property at the time in Amador and El Dorado counties, but I found Nevada County to be most appealing and charming.”
Ball eventually purchased 480 acres and started clearing it in the fall and winter of 1982. “In the winter we installed the irrigation system and trellis system on 110 acres, which was our first vineyard,” said Ball. “From there it was an uphill battle because we were unproven. I contacted wineries all over the place (looking to sell grapes), but I realized we’d have to demonstrate that we were capable of growing quality fruit.”
He decided to bottle his own wine. “I had wines made for us on a small scale, maybe 500 to 1,000 cases,” Ball recalled. “The accumulation of that wine started a chain of events that created opportunity for us. I was selling (grapes) to a small winery in Napa, and they ended up selling our fruit to Kendall-Jackson.”
That led to a relationship with Jed Steele, Kendall-Jackson’s founding winemaker. “Jed knew our vineyard from his days at Kendall-Jackson,” said Ball. “I called him for some other reason, but we started talking about the six acres of merlot we had planted. Jed eventually sent us a three-year proposal to be our wine consultant. That really helped when it came to marketing.”
That relationship led to a deal with a large winery that was starting to experiment with some non-alcohol wines. “What came out of that was that they came back to us and asked us to plant 50 acres of new vineyards for them. That was in 1996. We took that contract and put together four more deals for 115 acres of new vineyards.”
Then, as happens in any business, the dark clouds came rolling in.
“We had the wettest winter we’d ever had, and the contracts went south,” said Ball. “In the meantime, we were in debt with the banks and our revenue stream had evaporated.”
It would be easy for Ball to walk away. His land is zoned for agriculture, but there would be nothing to stop a developer from pursuing a rezoning and cutting it into five-acre residential parcels, for example.
“I had a developer buy the ranch behind me and he talked to me once about a joint venture development,” said Ball. “Nobody would buy it for agricultural reasons, but I think it’s important to protect it as agricultural land.”
For Ball’s sake, and for the sake of the many whose livelihoods depend on him, I hope the vines of Indian Springs Vineyards continue to bear fruit for years to come. If not, we will have lost yet another important piece of what makes Nevada County so special.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays.
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