Bulldozers follow SJV grape harvest

Cotton growers run shredders right behind pickers each season. Some of their farming counterparts with wine grape are running their own version of a cotton shredder. It's called a bulldozer.

Some vines still had crop hanging when the dozer piled the vines for burning. Others managed to run a mechanical grape harvester through the vineyard with the dozer close behind.

Raisin growers are up in arms over prices, free tonnage, reserve tonnage, import incentives and all the other convoluted and confusing elements of the raisin industry and its marketing order, bargaining association and Sun-Maid cooperative. Those mostly Thompson seed producers would be as quiet as church mice if the wine industry were not headed for the long anticipated wine glut no one heretofore have wanted to talk too loudly about.

Well, everyone is talking now as non-contract wine grapes start selling at fire sale prices. Nat DiBuduo, the new president of Allied Grape Growers said in the latest edition of the California Association of Winegrape Growers newsletter that uncontracted SJV varietals went for $100 per ton or less this season compared to $500 to $600 per ton for contracted grapes.

Thompson growers anticipating delivery to wineries learned as late as 10 days prior to harvest that their winery didn't want the grapes. That forced those grapes into raisins and thus you have the grower-packer-marketing order war in the raisin industry.

Industry experts are saying the crash will only cause big problems in the San Joaquin Valley and the so-called generic varietals, concentrate, brandy and "jug wine" grapes.

Dream on, says veteran valley grape grower Jeff Hildebrand who farms wine grapes in the Southern San Joaquin. He is one of those growers who had bulldozers follow the grape harvesters.

"What happened in the valley this year is going to move to the coast next season," he said.

No one knows for sure how many of the 40,000 acres of vines that have been planted annually over the past few years are not under contract, but you can bet a big chunk of it is on the North and Central coasts where the higher, premium varietal prices are more likely to attracted the uniformed and speculative types.

DiBuduo, his predecessor Barry Bedwell now with the Ciatti Grape Brokerage and Bill Turrentine of Turrentine Wine Brokerage, CAWG and countless others have preached the same sermon for years: Don't plant wine grapes without a solid, long-term winery contract.

However, there seems to be a glamour or allure with wine grapes, especially coastal varietals, that makes seemingly intelligent people spend millions to plant Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon with the tooth-fairy belief that wineries will flock to the farm gates to shower with them hundred dollars bills for their grapes.

It does not work that way. Whether it is Thompson seedless in Madera or Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, wine grapes are not different than cotton or wheat. Grapes are a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand and California will soon become awash in wine grapes.

The wine industry is healthy right now. Sales are strong. The alcohol stigma of the past is gone. Wine is healthy. In moderation, it's good for people. However, there is only so much wine the market can absorb and the tanks are about to overflow with wine.

It's deja vu al over again, to quote Yogi Berra. California's grape industry has been here before - and not too many years back.

The wily grape producers will weather this round like they have in the past. Unfortunately for those who are experiencing their first wine grape glut, the next few years will leave an aftertaste like a bad Cabernet.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.