Enough wine grapes already

"Enough is enough!" proclaimed Allied Grape Growers President Nat DiBuduo to the state’s grape growers at Allied’s 51st annual meeting recently in Fresno, Calif.

Grapevine planting must stop today throughout California, he said. There is an oversupply of many of the fighting varietals as well as generic San Joaquin Valley varietals and until demand meets supply, no more vines need to be planted.

Duran returned to the ring to fight again more than 30 times over a span of 20 years after that Leonard fight.

DiBuduo hopes it doesn’t take two decades before the wine grape industry returns to profitability. It if does, grape growers will be as scarce as Duran in the ninth round on that night against Sugar Ray.

However, DiBuduo told growers that this down cycle for raisins and wine grapes may last longer than anyone could foresee tumbling into this financial abyss that "may be one of the toughest periods for raisin and wine grape growers that we have ever faced."

Scary numbers

Here are the numbers that sent DiBuduo to the ringside bell to stop the planting:

--There are more than 950,000 acres of grapes in the state with 100,000 acres (90,000 wine grapes) non-bearing in a market where some wine grapes will not find a home this year nor over the next five years.

--Only 20,000 acres of SJV wine grapes were pulled in 2001 while the bearing acreage reached 480,000, an increase of 22,000.

--This year another 15,000 to 20,000 acres likely came out in the valley, but the 33,000 additional acres planted in 1999 officially moved into the bearing acreage category. Next year 28,000 will come into production and 18,000 acres more in 2004.

--Allied wine grape sales for its 500 members tumbled from $40 million in 2000 to $34 million, a precipitous loss of 29 percent in one year.

San Joaquin Valley grape growers have stopped planting with a non-bearing acreage of less than 7 percent compared to a statewide non-bearing acreage of 18 percent for reds and 17 percent for whites. Central Coast non-bearing acreage is 27 percent while non-bearing acreage for Cabernet Sauvignon is 29 percent and Pinot Noir 34 percent in Napa and Sonoma counties.

So far the hardest hit area of the state is the San Joaquin Valley where districts 12, 13 and 14 account for 60 percent of the state’s annual crush. DiBuduo said the central coast and other areas of the state are next in line to feel the downturn.

That may come this year or next since this year’s statewide grape crop is projected to be a big one with raisin grapes up 38 percent over last year; wine grapes up 7.5 percent and table grapes, the only profitable element of the grape industry now, up 10 percent.

Litany of woes

DiBuduo undoubtedly felt like the cruise director on the Titanic as he extolled a litany of woes descending on the state’s wine and raisin grape growers.

Putting on his first mate’s uniform from the Good Ship Lollipop, DiBuduo said there are bright spots:

--Wine marketers are working hard to take wine into mainstream America with programs like, "Wine—What are you saving it for?"

--Inventory of wine grape concentrate, a key element in SJV grape crush is low and demand is good.

--California wine sales are up 4 percent for the first quarter of 2002.

--U.S. wine exports are up 2 percent with a 33 percent increase recorded for the United Kingdom. Bulk wine exports, a major part of SJV wine sales, was up 27 percent. Exports account for a bigger share of SJV production than in other wine grape growing regions of the state.

--California’s top 15 premium wineries first quarter shipments were up 9 percent.

--Although 77 percent of wine purchased in food stores is $7 or less, sales of wine in the $7 to $14 per bottle range are up 14-189 percent.

DiBuduo and longtime friend and grape producers Carson Smith believe the way out of the San Joaquin Valley malaise is through increasing demand by producing better quality.

Smith is president of the fledgling Central California Winegrowers Association, a two-month-old organization that wants to change not only the perception of SJV grapes as being low quality but the reality as well.

Some of this can be done right away by adopting improved viticultural practices. Research can also foster better wine grapes.

Encourage growers

Smith and DiBuduo say valley wineries are encouraging their growers to irrigate and fertilizer less and prune more severely to improve quality.

The founding of new wineries and winery groups on the central valley is a step toward improving perception and quality of valley wine grapes and wine.

Growers, however, struggle with the notion that if they improve quality, wineries will be more inclined to pay higher prices, especially now when wineries are rejecting some grapes at any price.

Smith acknowledged that there is a financial risk in spending more money or changing cultural practices that will ultimately reduce tonnage and may not entice wineries.

Smith said waiting until wineries offer higher prices before changing cultural practices or replanting to more desirable varieties may be dead-end street.

"If we do not change now, we may not be around when prices turn around," he said.

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