State wine industry series of disheartening cycles

The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium attracted 9,000 people to Sacramento in January. It has become the largest gathering of vintners and growers in America.

California Association Winegrape Growers (CAWG) and the American Society of Enology and Viticulture are to be commended for efforts to unify growers and vintners in one place to address issues and come up with solutions for the common good of the California industry.

However, will it or anything else ever unify California growers and vintners? From what we heard from growers in Sacramento, a chasm continues to separate the two segments.

What was buzz with growers at the symposium? Disputed winery contracts, unfair delivery schedules and the newest wineries ploy, “more hang time.” That means growers were asked to leave grapes on the vines longer last season to seemingly improve quality, which also just happens to reduce tonnage and the amount wineries must pay for grapes. Ironically, vintners are having trouble fermenting grapes held longer than in the past. This spawned another new phrase; ”humidifying wine grapes.” Translation: add water to ferment grapes.

The games never stop, and it is sad. It has been that way for the almost 30 years since we began reporting on California's wine grape industry.

Respected bulk wine broker Bill Turrentine displayed a roller coaster chart of wine grape prices covering a 30-year span to 2002: A model for basic strategic planning. When prices are high, don't overplant. When prices are low, prepare for an up cycle. Anyone following that simple model would have a clear competitive advantage, said Turrentine.

However, it never happens. What occurs is wine grape prices reach a level where a vineyard is profitable; banks loan millions to plant new vineyards and when those vines come into full production, there are more grapes than the market needs, and prices tank. Vineyards are taken over by banks or bulldozed out, and the cycle starts over again from the bottom. It about a five-year cycle that is as predictable as the sun coming up tomorrow morning.

The California wine industry is the jewel of California agriculture. Drinking California wine is a marvelous adventure. I am one of the industry's biggest fans. People often ask me “which wines are best.” To that I respond: “Drink no wine until it's in a bottle.” Call me an irreverent redneck who doesn't know Lone Star from Cabernet Sauvignon, but I know from my own experience many, many people right here in California and elsewhere continue to be befuddled by California wines — varietal names, winery names and appellations.

Don't believe that? Look what the Australians have done. They came to Unified several years ago and proclaimed that as a united grower/vintner industry in that country they would soon bring inexpensive, good wines into California and America and take market share. No one believed them. Know what? They have done exactly that with wines with names like Yellow Tail and other catchy labels. Imports — not just Australian, but Chilean, Argentine, South African and European — now command a quarter of wine sales in America because they have made wine fun. Australian wines are growing at twice the rate of California wines in the U.S.

Now what? The glut is now only a lake. Grape prices will start climbing again and the cycle begins anew.

There always will be business cycles and challenges. However, the disunity of the California's wine industry make those cycles so disheartening for growers and vintners alike.

The solution is simple; unite in a concerted effort to increase and sustain California wine consumption. Quit being adversaries.

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