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Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2023: Tom Gamble — Embracing and Enhancing Napa Valley’s Biodiversity

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By Laurie Wachter

 

Tom Gamble [Photo: Sarah Anne Risk]
Tom Gamble [Photo: Sarah Anne Risk]

Tom Gamble’s driving passion is to ensure Napa County’s biodiversity endures for generations. His experimental lab is Gamble Family Vineyards, where he’s the third generation to steward the land and preserve its agricultural heritage. Gamble recognizes that change is inevitable and, thus, for more than 30 years, he’s become a leading voice for sustainability initiatives in Napa Valley.  

“I’m a ‘get-it-done’ kind of guy,” says Gamble, “but I’ve learned you have to talk and listen to other people’s needs — including agencies, which have their own needs and want to do the right thing, as do local land owners.”

Gamble Family Vineyards now comprises 175 acres in the Oakville, Rutherford, Mt. Veeder and Yountville AVAs; it grew from a piece of his grandfather’s first acquisition south of Lake Berryessa, where the family’s agricultural enterprises began with cattle grazing and expanded into grains, tomatoes, pears and the walnuts Gamble remembers picking from the last of the trees. 

A life in the dirt

“Our parents made us play outside,” he says of growing up in Oakville, “but we loved it. We helped with the hay and rode horses to move the cows. Plus, we did a lot of aimless wandering, playing in the dirt and streams. I remember the earthy smells of soil, leather saddles, cow sweat and horse sweat.”

Tom Gamble [Photo: Sarah Anne Risk]
Tom Gamble [Photo: Sarah Anne Risk]

Those sensory memories persist in his approach to evaluating wine quality, which starts not in the bottle but in the soil. Where wine tasters appraise characteristics like aroma, viscosity and acidity, Gamble delves into the ground using the same senses of smell, sight and even taste — searching for a faint scent of truffles, comparing how the darkness varies and how deep the rich topsoil goes. He uses these markers alongside scientific sources such as soil moisture sensors to measure the impact of his experimental farming practices. 

Greg Tutton has firsthand experience with Gamble’s proclivity for experimentation. Tutton grew up in California’s Central Valley and is now a global leader in regenerative agriculture, working with the UN, WMO (World Meteorological Organization) and other groups from his home in Basel, Switzerland. He’s been working with Gamble on increasing biodiversity to keep wildfires on hillsides (where they will do less damage to the soil used for planting). 

“We first hit it off over pictures of corn and soybeans,” Tutton recalls with a laugh, “discussing whether there was a way to develop the whole soil microbiome as a consortium rather than adding one microbe at a time, thus increasing plants’ ability to uptake nutrients or process water.” 

Tom Gamble [Photo: Sarah Anne Risk]
Tom Gamble [Photo: Sarah Anne Risk]

Gamble decided to test the idea: “I want healthy vines that can stand weather stress, and healthy vines need healthy soil and more complex biodiversity in and around the vineyards.”

Two years later, Tutton was in town when Gamble invited him to come over because he had just used a backhoe to dig a 6-foot trench in his 20-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. 

“He wanted me to see the difference between the trial and control plots,” says Tutton. “There appeared to be twice as many roots, more root tangling and darker dirt in the trial area, and the dirt clods clumped more. So far, the trial plot has handled climate stress much better and has been more resilient in this third year of drought. Working with [Tom] is both inspiring and fun!” 

Experimentation takes time, and Gamble wanted to move quickly, so he hired Raymond Reyes as director of viticulture and winery relations. Reyes built his reputation for innovation in sustainable agriculture while working at Constellation, LVMH and Gallo. 

“Tom has always had a clear vision of where he wanted to take his properties,” says Reyes. “After working in corporate environments, I cherish the intimacy of sitting down and talking with him about sustainability in our vineyards, the forests around them and the cattle grazing areas. We’re 80 to 90% toward organic farming, and the next big push is regenerative farming.”

Like mother, like son

Tom Gamble at the historic Napa Mill
Tom Gamble at the historic Napa Mill

Gamble’s mother, Mary Ann McGuire, was a driving force behind the 1968 Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, and he has continued the family commitment to local sustainability by fostering initiatives such as:

  • Napa River Restoration Project: Gamble helped restore funding to protect cities and the vineyards from damaging flooding, and his family donated 10 acres in Rutherford and Oakville to the project (a gift equivalent to approximately $4 million). The work has contributed to restoring the wetlands along San Pablo Bay and resulted in salmon spawning again in the Napa River north of Calistoga. 
  • Fish-Friendly Farming and Napa Green: Gamble helped draft these initiatives and remains an active advocate. At their peak, more than 90% of Napa County’s 45,000 acres of vineyards were certified under at least one of these programs. 
  • Million Trees Napa: Gamble co-launched this nonprofit in 2022 with a $20,000 donation. It uses a science-based approach to forest stewardship by planting trees that increase diversity. He says, “People ask, ‘What are we going to do with all of these issues surrounding climate change and environmental sustainability?’ Well, anyone can go out and plant trees.” 
  • The Mill Keeper: Gamble’s new brand of environmentally conscious value wines source fruit from generational, often sustainable or organic, California vineyards, helping preserve family-owned farms. The multi-vintage wines let the brand commit to long-term contracts without worrying about weather, climate and economic changes. 

“If it were just about me,” Gamble says. “I would have approached my business in a completely different way that would have had immediate economic gratification. I’m doing what I’m doing for the future.”

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Laurie Wachter
Laurie Wachter

Laurie Wachter

Laurie Wachter brings her expertise in consumer behavior, food & beverage marketing and direct-to-consumer sales to writing about innovation and challenges in the consumer packaged goods industry. She works with a global client base from her Northern California Wine Country home.

 

 

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Wine's Most Inspiring PeopleAbout Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals from within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened submissions to the industry at large, and the success of this new nomination process was quickly recognized, as honorees came from more diverse wine regions and had more distinct stories to tell. With more than 100 nominees in 2022, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who, they felt, had truly positively impacted the U.S. wine culture over the past year.  

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