American Vineyard Magazine
CALPELLA – “Mendocino County grapes made Napa famous.”
Charlie Barra. Who else would come right out and say that?
That’s right, a man who owns his own winery would say that. A man who makes his own endposts and catches his own water in his own reservoirs. He even built his own gondolas.
Barra, who celebrates his 84th birthday this December as he celebrates his 65th year growing wine grapes, (65th year growing organic wine grapes,) is a serious man. With a serious mischievousness to his chin-splitting grin.
Barra said with a bit of bitterness that people say he is ‘old world.’
But Barra is a lifetime leader of the new world of grape-growing, the fastest growing market sector, organics. And his family’s old world wisdom has taken him to that rosy future.
Barra does not buy grapes but he does sell some. He also reports that he sells some bulk juice. His Redwood Valley Cellars are known throughout California as the go-to certified organic north coast crush facility.
So is he organic by heart and soul or by pocket book?
“I’ve been growing organic grapes for 65 years,” he said. I didn’t know it the first 30.”
Explaining that the Barra family had been growing wine grapes in Italy for generations before a move to America at the turn of the century, he said, “it’s about the environment more than anything.”
Barra said he grew up growing grapes in California in a family closely tied to the land and farming. By the age of ten he said he could prune as well as anyone. He said a characteristic birthday gift for a boy that age would be a good pair of pruning shears.
That was also before the advent of chemical pesticides.
“If your parents were able to grow grapes without chemicals and pesticides,” Barra’s logic questioned, “why would you do anything different?”
“We didn’t need those chemicals,” Barra said simply. “We knew what we were doing.”
His family, Barra explained, had the ‘resource of experience’ to produce wine grapes without sacrificing the environment.
The glee in his grin conveys the attitude of independence Barra clearly cherishes. He commented that had his family stayed in Italy, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to succeed. “If I’d been born in Europe,” he said, “I’d be hoeing around vines for some count.”
It is with this independent spirit that he challenges his fellow grape growers to say no to toxic pesticide use.
“I don’t know why they listen to the chemical salesmen,” he said. “What the hell do they know about growing grapes?”
Barra is kind enough to add that this is not a personal attack. “That’s their job to sell chemicals,” he said.
“But it’s not my job to buy them.” Big Grin.
Barra said he started farming when he was still in high school. Recalling the day he announced to the principal that he was quitting in order to run a neighbor’s farm, he also recalled the derisive laughter his announcement met.
But he met the insult with determination, noting that he would go on to make three times the principal’s salary in his first year.
That financial achievement may have guided Barra the rest of his life, but so would another element of the allegory.
The day after he quit, the principal dragged the vice principal into the discussion, according to Barra, a man who was a friend of the teenage Barra. A deal was reached that would have Barra attending school half days, free to farm the remaining daylight hours. Another Big Grin.
Not hesitating to stand up to authority and able to broker deals, Barra would spend the next 65 years living the life of “the luckiest man who ever lived.”
His 200+ acre Redwood Valley Vineyards and Winery produce 25,000 cases of a list of varietal wines under four labels.
Barra’s financial success aside, his name comes up in credits of the North Coast Grape Growers Association, the transition from what Barra calls ‘vin ordinaire’ planting to varietal planting of the region in the mid-twentieth century as well as a number of growing practices.
Barra said he doesn’t spray or dust his vineyard; he merely does a single application of copper and sulfur at two-inches shoot growth. Through the sprinkler system. Biggest Grin.
And he claims his opinions are ‘probably unique’ also.
For example, modern economic problems—as well as global hunger issues—would dissolve according to Barra if the U.S. government would require all imports to come from countries that had minimum wage laws in place comparable to those of this country.
“The government is asleep,” Barra opines gently.
The lively Barra is also ready to share observations about the economics of local agriculture. As a lifelong organic grower—one who has grown organically before organic was ‘cool’ or before the term became legally binding, Barra is perhaps uniquely qualified to comment. In his view, “sustainability” is merely a term used to sidestep the organic rules.
Still trying to peg Barra? Keep guessing:
Barra was appointed to the Mendocino Board of Supervisors as a democrat by Governor Ronald Reagan. Then he said he made a deal with Reagan that if Reagan would run for president, Barra would switch parties. Big grin.
A tour of the Barra vineyard operation yields many stories, enough for a book. A book at least one of his children would like to see written. Shelley Maly is the sales and marketing branch of the Barra family tree and cherishes the story she has watched happen. All three children are involved in varying degrees in the Barra operation.
Asked if the elder Barra is retired, his answer is tour-guide clever: “I am retired. I only work half time. Twelve hours per day.”
And Barra’s wife, Martha? “I’m the owner, she’s the boss,” Barra grins again. Ouch.