Another decade, another wine boom
Ag at Large
California is on its way to a wine boom again, and even more than previous booms it is demonstrating the predominance of grapes grown in the Central Valley.
Wine aficionados have a deep-seated opinion that wine grapes grown in the Central Valley, defined as the 150-mile stretch between Lodi and Tulare, result in lower quality wine. The industry seems to acknowledge that assessment, tagging most of the area’s production as bulk wine.
The rationale holds that the higher quality wine (That means more expensive) is made from grapes grown in Northern California or coastal areas where cooler summer breezes prevail. The warmer summers in the interior Central Valley supposedly prevent grapes from reaching their full flavorful potential.
But the current boom in the wine business is going to require greater volumes of wine from California than the romantic Northern California valleys and coastal hillsides can produce. Already the grapes from the Central Valley account for as much as 50 percent of the wine produced in California, but often losing their identity by being blended with grapes grown elsewhere in the state.
Even at the outset of the latest boom period the Muscat grape, practically indigenous to the Central Valley, is in great demand. Nurseries have run out of it, and several growers have pushed other varieties out of the ground to make room to grow it. It’s a variety that likes heat, and the Central Valley complies.
One reason for the rejuvenated interest in the Muscat grape has been the promotion and popularity of Moscato wine, and the overwhelming response to it by the “echo boomers,” 21 to 34-year-olds. Skinny Girl sangria also holds a strong appeal for this age group.
Whatever the age or financial status of wine consumers in the U. S., they have propelled the country past France and Italy to become the world’s leading consumer of wine. The reality that 61 percent of California’s table wines sell for less than $7 per bottle also contributes to accelerated movement.
Even the choice varietal wines are selling at discounted prices, apparently in response to the economic downturn of the past two years. That reaches the pocketbook of older wine drinkers, some of whom were introduced to conservative wine consumption through the popularity of the varietals more than 30 years ago.
One of the earlier wine booms developed around the varietals in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The sudden acceleration in wine sales resulted in over-planting by some growers and wineries, and the boom turned to sales in moderation if not a bust.
Another boom in wine sales occurred in the ’90s, but response by the grape growing community was more measured. As that boom faded prices to growers dropped to the extent that some vineyards were pushed out, especially in the Central Valley. Growers without contracts with a winery suffered most.
Now, the wine grape industry in the Central Valley has strengthened. The stability has been fostered by two organizations of growers, Allied Grape Growers and San Joaquin Winegrowers Association.
Leaders of the two organizations are encouraging growers to plant new vineyards or expand existing ones, but only if they are party to a contract with a winery that will buy their grapes at a specified price.
American (California) wine is a major export item, so the economics in Europe and elsewhere will help shape the size and intensity of the current boom. Wine is imported as well, in bulk and bottled. The volume bottled in the next few years will depend to a large degree on the amount that can be imported in bulk, then bottled here.
Wineries and bottlers operate in a complex world. Those who have experienced at least two boom periods in the past 40 years should know how to prevent the emerging boom from becoming a bust. They seem sure that it will have to travel through the Central Valley as it occurs.