Home Wine Business Editorial Viticulture Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2024: Duff Bevill — Propelling Sustainability in Sonoma...

Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2024: Duff Bevill — Propelling Sustainability in Sonoma County and Beyond

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By Kathleen Willcox 

Duff Bevill grew up in Southern California, and says he “couldn’t wait” to “get away from L.A. and get to farmland up north.” That passion for Northern California’s green spaces and fresh air has defined his life’s work and helped shape the future of farming in California and beyond. It’s this legacy of stewardship that landed Bevill on the list of 2024’s Most Inspiring People.

Bevill headed north when he was 20 and began taking agriculture classes at Shasta College in Redding, Calif. A few years later, he says, he’d “had enough of school.” This was 1973, a few years into the grape revolution rocking the areas surrounding Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Through a college professor, he was introduced to Joe Vogensen in nearby Dry Creek Valley. 

And so it began. 

Duff Bevill

Humble Beginnings

Living (on and off) in a VW bus and then the cabin on a flatbed truck, Bevill didn’t have running water or electricity in those early days. But, he says, he thrived working and living amid the farms of Northern California. Vogensen Irrigation provided Bevill with a bird’s eye view of the exploding business of growing grapes and making wine in Sonoma County. He was also exposed to the old timers who’d nurtured a small, home-grown wine industry for decades before the world began to take notice.

“I loved managing vineyards and developing new ones,” Bevill recalls. “It was fast-paced and high pressure. Every day was different.”

After three years with Vogensen, Bevill tried his hand at managing a smaller single vineyard, but missed the wild, unpredictable pace of managing multiple dynamic projects at different stages of development. He decided to go out on his own, founding Bevill Vineyard Management after buying his first tractor at an auction in 1978.

It was a heady time. He fell in love with his wife, Nancy, who joined his business and with whom he shares four children. He hired his first employee in 1979. In the 45 years since, Bevill has built the business considerably: he now manages 1,200 acres of prime vineyard land, has 75 full-time employees year-round and more than 150 during the peak season. 

“These days, Nancy and I are still running the ship, but we’re slowly handing off responsibilities,” Bevill says. “Nancy still does the books, but I now consider my main job to be a mentor at the vineyard company — to continue to encourage and inspire growers and producers in Sonoma County and beyond to be good stewards of the land.”

A Sustainable Future

While Bevill is rightfully invested in — and proud of — his vineyard management company, he says he considers his true legacy to be his role in making Sonoma County “the most sustainably farmed winegrowing region in the world.”

In 2006, Bevill helped found the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, aka Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), and set to work building an informal, grassroots network of vintners and growers who wanted to invest in and deepen their commitment to sustainability. In 2014, he challenged SCW President Karissa Kruse to figure out how to make the county not just more sustainable than it was, but more sustainable than any other region. 

“He challenged us to be leaders in conservation and sustainability,” Kruse recalls. “This led us, and our board of commissioners, to make a region-wide goal to become 100% sustainable in all of our vineyards. Thanks to his encouragement, SCW and Sonoma County grape-growers achieved this goal in 2019.”

Putting Bevill’s idea into action was a Sisyphean task. The Sonoma County AVA covers more than 1 million acres and 18 AVAs. There are more than 1,800 growers in Sonoma, and more than 95 percent of Sonoma County’s vineyards are family owned and operated. Of those vineyards, 80% are 100 acres or less, and 40% are 20 acres or less. 

In other words, there were a lot of moving parts to coordinate and an enormous number of people to convince. Not that Bevill never had any doubts. 

“I know the old timers here in Sonoma, and I know the new folks, too,” Bevill says. “We’re lucky to be in a special place with people who appreciate and want to preserve what we have for future generations.”

Sustainability is also important to consumers, he points out. (Indeed, 66% of all respondents and 75% of millennials make purchases based on a company or brand’s sustainability, according to a recent survey from McKinsey & Co.)

All Sonoma needed, it seems, was a visionary like Bevill and an action-oriented strategist like Kruse to make it happen. Both Bevill and Kruse worked one-on-one with dubious growers and vintners to convince them of both the ethical and business arguments for greater sustainability. 

Doubters to Believers

Not everyone was on board. As critics were quick to point out, sustainability is a squishy, subjective word, without a legal definition. The SCW decided to make clarifying the term “sustainability” foundational to the mission, Bevill explains.

To qualify to carry the Sonoma County Sustainable wine logo on their labels, wineries must make their wines with at least 85% certified sustainable grapes. This means grapes must be certified under at least one of the four accepted third-party certified sustainability programs: Fish Friendly Farming, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Sustainability in Practice or Lodi Rules

Duff Bevill and Matt Vogensen

That flexibility has helped ensure widespread participation.

“Our goal was 100%,” Bevill says. “We made it to 99%. That’s probably as close as it’s possible to be, because there will always be people who opt out. And while we got a lot of criticism from other wine regions when we announced our intention to go 100% sustainable, now we have other regions calling us and coming here to find out how we did it.”

Bevill, now in his 70s, has been enjoying several full circle moments involving the future of sustainability in Sonoma County and the future of his own company.

“When I went to meet Joe [Vogensen] for the first time, his son was 9 months old and sitting on a picnic blanket outside,” Bevill recalls. “Today, Matt is my partner. Eventually, he’ll run the company. And his son is now working for us during the summers, and I see a bright future for him here, too.”

Bevill’s sustainable vision, it’s safe to say, is in good hands across Sonoma County — for many generations to come. 

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Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine Searcher, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

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