In the vines

April 19, 2011

Photo by Dennis Eamon Young


Well, ol’ Jack Frost nicked us the second weekend of April in Avila Valley.

It got down to 32.5 just long enough to nip some of our Pinot Grigio and the Pinot Naturale block. Usually, we would have sprayed at least one application of our organic mineral oil and a shot of Copper Hydroxide (Kocide) which somewhat controls the ice nucleating bacteria and can afford protection in a light frost. The problem is that a few weeks before we had seven inches of rain and our vineyard was still soaked. To have gone in and sprayed would have torn up our year-around cover crop requiring us to disk it up which would bring back the noxious weeds we have been suppressing with our annual native grasses.

My Dad always said that after a late heavy spring rain farmers should go on a two week vacation away from the farm and the temptation to start working the ground too early.

Adding to the problem, I outsmarted myself. We like to prune these colder east facing blocks last because the thinking is the later you prune, the later you have bud break. Well, this set up these blocks perfectly for the late occurring freeze because they were at their most vulnerable stage. This was not one of those mistakes that were too much fun to only make once!  We may lose about 30 percent of our production in these couple of blocks.

Overall, the rest of the varietals are looking great with a full crop predicted after looking at the young clusters just forming.

The good old USA is now number one – more wine drunk here than anywhere else on the planet. We just edged out France’s 3.85 billion bottles in 2010 by putting down 3.96 billion bottles. Wow, that is a lot of wine! Nobody thought you homegrown winos had it in you to knock off France anytime soon. There is, however, a big per capita difference in that the French each drink around 12.2 gallons a year; whereas, we only drink around 2.6 gallons a head a year. So we have a market that is hardly developed and with the millennial generation making up an increasing share, it is looking quite rosy for the wine industry.

California produced about 61 percent of this wine consumed with the rest coming from overseas (in the low 30 percent range) and from the other 49 states which all now have a least one winery.  Overall increase was up 2 percent for California to all markets in the world, including the USA, with a retail value of $18.5 billion. When you figure in the employment, travel, hospitality, taxes paid, suppliers, etc, the wine industry is doing its’ part to keep the economy going.

So if we have consistent increase in sales and demand, then why was last year’s total grape acreage (including table and raisin grapes) the smallest in 13 years?  As of 2010, over 113,000 acres have been taken out from a total of 955,000 acres showing in 2000. Low prices, especially for raisins and table grapes, plus a huge crop in the middle of the economic meltdown were partly responsible. Also, water uncertainly and more attractive crops like almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and other profitable crops have taken a big toll on all types of grapes. Bearing acres of winegrapes is around 93 percent with only 7 percent non-bearing (mostly in the Central Valley) which take 3 to 5 years to become mature.

So doing the numbers, even with all the vineyards you see around the state, we don’t have enough grapes in the ground to fuel the increase in sales. Banks are not lending and with prices for labor, metal products (stakes, wire, clips) plus our PVC pipe and drip tubing (petroleum products to include gas and diesel) going through the roof, not a lot of acres are being planted.  This leaves the door open for more imports especially by some of our big wineries that are buying cheap foreign bulk wine and adding it to your California brand. They can put in up to 25 percent and still call it a California wine.

Maybe it is time for a disclosure of point of origin on wines. This is all the more reason for you to buy wine from small local wineries (plug). In any case, we are seeing a lot more activity from wineries wanting to tie up production and inquiries about bulk wine for sale. We usually sell about a third of our production to other wineries but have decided to keep most of what we produce and, for the first time, start selling wine outside of the tasting room.

It doesn’t take much of an imagination after watching the problems in Japan to think – what if? If we have some sort of disaster, do we have enough food available?  The U.S. has only about an 11 day food supply within our giant food chain. Think of all the fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that are available and if they vanished practically overnight because of a disaster especially here in California which is the major food supplier to the United States. Not only would the crops be perhaps temporarily not grown, they probably couldn’t get processed and delivered on a large scale rapidly anyway. What would be worse is if we have to rely more and more on foreign imports of food from countries not particularly our friends like with oil.

There is the more realistic problem of farmers giving up because of high production prices and increasing governmental regulations. With the food dollar going up, farmers are not seeing much of it because we get just 12 cents of every dollar spent on food here. Over three times what the farmer receives is eaten up in labor and energy intensive activities like packaging, transportation, and food processing plus all the other middlemen whose hands are out taking their cuts. Especially so are the commodity brokers who have never set foot on a farm and are reaping in huge speculation profits just sitting in front of a computer. Unless farmers can get value added prices (grapes to wine, farmer’s markets, etc.), they are at the mercy of buyers and rising production costs they can’t pass on.

A common example: When I grew and packed my own tomatoes near Los Mochis, Mexico eighteen years ago, I would average around $6 per 25 pound box (24 cents a pound). The next day they would be in the market in Phoenix and San Diego at $25/box ($1/pound). I took all the risks and did all the work to include paying for them to be trucked to Nogales. It hasn’t changed a bit so please don’t get on us farmers because your grocery bill is going up.

It is well to remember that there are five reasons to drink wine: the arrival of a friend; ones present or future thirst; the excellence of the wine; or any other reason”. Old Latin saying

John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years starting in the Sacramento Delta in 1850. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.