A nighttime drive along the vineyard-laden Silverado Trail serves up the usual smells of farming country: the musty aroma of damp earth, the strong scent of verdant fields, and the occasional miasmic shock of manure.

But there's another smell, one that is attracting bankers from around the world to the Napa Valley - the smell of money.

American agricultural lending, heating up as a profit center for commercial banks, is hottest here. The American wine industry - and about 75% of it is in Napa and Sonoma counties - is poised for growth of historic proportions, fueled by a remarkable confluence of trends in health and consumer taste. And banks of all sizes are lining up to provide the seed money.

Bank of America has the strongest historical links to the California wine industry, but in recent years a number of community banks have been challenging its status as the viticulture bank.

Chief among them is Napa National Bank and its bow-tied chief executive, Brian Kelly.

"It's the kind of business that bankers really get a kick out of," said Mr. Kelly, a veteran wine industry lender who in the 1970s trained under BofA's Andy Johnson, the deacon of wine lending, up the road in St. Helena. "What loan officer wouldn't want to go out of the office saying, 'I'm going out to the winery to do some business.' And the Napa Valley is about as perfect a place as there is."

Napa National is more closely tied to the wine industry than any other bank. Of its $99 million in loan commitments, Mr. Kelly said, 30% is tied directly to the region's grape growers and wine makers, and at least another 5% is tied indirectly through vendors servicing the industry. The bank's chairman, W. Clarke Swanson Jr., is also a commercial wine maker.

"Every bank is being more aggressive in lending to the wine market," Mr. Kelly said. "But you've got to be here to lend here, and that's the advantage we have."

Even with all the new competition, Mr. Kelly isn't too worried. He says his loan officers' knowledge of the business is unmatched, so both he and the regulators are comfortable with the bank's concentration in the industry.

Another reason he's not sweating is that the wine industry in Northern California is with few exceptions made up of very small businesses, which gravitate toward smaller banks.

"Most of our credits are between $250,000 and $1 million," he said. "That's a very good place to be, and small enough that many of the larger banks might not pay the kind of attention to the customer that we do."

It's easy to understand the allure for any bank, big or small. The wine business has bankers' best-loved traits: real estate (the limited-supply, hyper-expensive kind), semi-celebrity, secondary sources of wealth, huge margins, cash-flow financing, and the opportunity to have some great business meals.

"In the last 24 months there's been an uncanny reassertion of support from the banking industry," said John DeLuca, president of the Wine Institute. "And it comes after a long period of distinct absence."

Vintner Gary Andrus puts it more bluntly.

"I get two or three calls from bankers a day," he said. "I'm sure there's another one on my voice mail that called while we're here talking."

The business has much the same risk as any other type of agricultural production, as well as some that many commodity-type agricultural businesses don't have.

Unlike, say, wheat, wine is subject to swings in consumer tastes. Also, there is a long period between planting grape vines and the sale of the wine - five to seven years in most cases. If a bank makes a production loan today, the payback isn't until 2002 at the earliest.

Luckily, the American wine industry is fairly flush with equity, as its proprietors generally were rich before they got into the business. Even the cash-poor grape growers who got into the business in the 1960s are "wealthy" based on the value of their land, which given the unique combination of climate and soil is unlike any other in America.

"I started as a grower in 1965," said Napa National clientDick Steltzner, who owns Steltzner Winery in Napa. "I had an art degree, but I had done some vineyard management. That year, there were 13 commercial wineries in the entire Napa Valley. The whole place was prune farms. Back then, people started getting into the grape-growing business because it was a lifestyle choice. Land was cheap and it was a great way to shelter income from taxes."

That's all changed today. "People used to be farmers, and have that outlook," said Arlette Roddy, Napa National's chief wine lending officer. "Now, they have to be pretty good marketers - businesspeople."

Mr. Steltzner does indeed look like a farmer. His calloused hands, sunweathered face, crewcut and muddy Doc Martens shoes aren't just props for the tourists. The Steltzner operation, however, isn't like most farms, and bears out the maxim that you have to be rich (or have a very willing banker) to get rich in the wine business.

The vineyard itself stretches for 100 acres over lush hillsides. Cost to plant: about $20,000 an acre.

In a hill next to his offices is the cave, stretching for several hundred yards and moled out at a cost of about $40 a square foot. The cave, kept at a constant temperature and humidity, is lined with hundreds of wine-filled barrels of French and American oak. Each barrel costs about $700.

Built into the cave is the Steltzner Winery inner sanctum, an enclosed room elevated over the barrels. It is lushly appointed - Persian rugs, leather easy chairs, and mahogany tables. The room is permeated with the woody scent of the fortune aging in the casks below.

"This is where we take the bankers," Mr. Steltzner said.

And bankers are in no short supply. Mr. Andrus, a neighbor of Mr. Steltzner and owner of the Pine Ridge Winery, said a number of regional and community banks, investment bankers, and Dutch and Japanese banks are jockeying for hegemony in the California wine industry.

The reason is that wine consumption is expected to increase globally, and especially in the United States.

Sales volume of U.S.-produced table wine has been growing at about a 6.5% clip since 1993, according to the Wine Institutes, and 1996 could be the best year in a decade. All told, domestic and international retail sales of U.S. wine was $12.5 billion in 1995, and a recent survey of producers found that 90% of them expect sales to increase every year for the next four.

And even as more consumers are finding they like wine, recent studies indicate that wine consumption is healthy.

"Morley Safer asked on national television," in one of two "60 Minutes" segments on the positive health aspects of wine drinking, '"You mean I can have four glasses of wine a day and it will be good for me?' That was beautiful," Mr. Steltzner said.

New planting techniques that could double wine production on existing acreage and a phylloxera epidemic that will require wholesale replanting in the next few years mean that even as demand surges, grape growers' financing needs will be greater than ever.

Other than planting loans, which have multiyear terms, banks typically offer inventory financing. On its face, inventory financing is low risk, as it's almost always short term. But the myriad of distribution laws and the fickleness of wholesalers present many pitfalls, so a lender has to be sure of a wine maker's business plan and marketing prowess before starting a relationship, Mr. Kelly said.

Among the more unlikely recent entrants into winery lending is Silicon Valley Bank in San Jose. Better known for its venture capital and high- technology lending than its agriculture lending, Silicon Valley began making wine-industry loans several years ago. Business has been so good recently that in October the bank opened an office north of here in St. Helena, the hub of Napa Valley's wine industry.

"You have the two industries in California - the wine industry that looks really good and the banking industry that suddenly has lots of money to lend - and they're coming together," said Rob McMillan, a senior vice president who heads Silicon Valley's winery division.

"Banking goes in and out of agriculture like the tide," he said. "To a large extent, our commitment will be proven only with time. We're the new kid on the block."

Silicon Valley has about $75 million in loan commitments to the wine industry, and Mr. McMillan hopes to increase the portfolio to as much as $250 million.

For his part, Mr. Steltzner sounds a cautionary tone.

"There's more money chasing the wine industry than there are prudent projects to finance," he said.

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