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Column: California wine industry needs to move beyond regional efforts

Commissions and marketing orders promoting consumer awareness of agricultural products are absolutely vital to the success of a wide array of commodities, from cotton to strawberries to almonds, walnut, pistachios and table grapes.

Operated efficiently with solid promotional plans, they are as indispensable as the sun to a commodity.

Kudos to wine grape growers in Sonoma and vintners and producers in Mendocino for decisively approving wine grape commissions to promote wine from their respective appellations.

They followed the equally bold producers in the Lodi-Woodbridge area of the Northern San Joaquin Valley and in Lake County who voted to create mandatory assessment districts to promote wine made from the grapes they grow.

The last thing I want to do is toss a load of compost on the efforts of a very large group of growers – 2,000 strong – who have stepped up to help themselves.

I certainly wish only success to growers in Mendocino and Sonoma and continued success to Lake and Lodi-Woodbridge producers. However, these four commissions and the other organized efforts to promote wine grape regions are, unfortunately, more of the same marketing that has stymied California’s wine industry for years. It is a game called “let’s knock each other off the shelf.”

The marketing/promotional priority is not to gain new wine drinkers or to encourage wine drinkers to enjoy more California wine, but to knock the next guy off the shelf.

One of the arguments of those supporting the new wine commissions is that imports are taking away California’s business and growers need to fight back. Imports are growing faster than domestic wine sales not with wine appellations. Yellow Tail kicked California’s tail in the wine wars by selling fun and selling Australia packaged in decent, consumer-friendly table wines.

California’s wine industry needs a California wine marketing commission supported by both growers and vintners.

This is the other part of the four wine grape commissions that is askew. Only wineries in Mendocino are assessed to support the commissions there. Wineries in the other three commissions are not assessed, yet they benefit first and directly from the success of a commission’s marketing effort.

California had a wine promotion commission in the late 1980s. It went down in flames before it had time to clear the end of the runway, largely because the state’s largest wineries did not want growers having a say in the wine business. Wineries do not want wine grape growers statewide organized in any fashion.

Sonoma and Mendocino grape growers deserve praise for wanting to fight back and be rewarded for the quality they produce. However, it is ludicrous to spend money battling for basically the same marketplace with the battlefront being a county line.

Those who say California’s wine industry is doing just fine, thank you, and there’s no need for generic California wine promotion point to the fact that the United States will soon become the No. 1 wine consuming nation in the world. However, it is all about a growing population.

The United States still ranks among the lowest in the world in per capita wine consumption, just 8 liters per year. By comparison, it’s 19 liters per capita in Australia; 15 in the UK; 27 in Greece and more than 50 liters in France and Italy. Raise the U.S. per capita consumption just 1 liter, and there would not be enough vines or tanks to meet the demand.

You cannot do that by creating a herd of small appellation or regional wine promotion groups battling each other for the same shelf slot. I believe you can achieve real wine consumption growth with a statewide California promotion commission. It has been proven with too many other agricultural products.

On a personal note

Earlier this summer Buel Mouser of Chico, Calif., died after a relatively brief battle with cancer. Many in the California cotton industry knew Buel. He was the former Kern County cotton farmer who moved north in the late 1960s to manage the California State University, Chico, farm. He later became an ag professor at the college and was influential in educating thousands of young men and women for careers in agriculture.

He never lost his love for cotton and grew the crop for many years on the university farm. When he retired in 1990, he summarized what he had learned about growing cotton in Northern California where cotton was grown for a brief time in the late 1920s. Growers and others in the cotton industry used that research report to re-introduce cotton into the Sacramento Valley after a 50-year hiatus.

Two gins were built and cotton is still part of Sacramento Valley agriculture. After retirement, Buel spent time as a consultant and worked with good friend and cotton breeder V.T. Walhood developing new varieties. He also helped UC farm advisor Doug Munier with research plots on the Chico State Farm.

I wrote several articles with Buel over the years and after his retirement worked along side him and his wife Loraine in organizing Sacramento Valley grower meetings.

We became good friends. I’ll miss him and his enthusiasm; his love of family; his love for Chico State’s ag department and the many students who were truly privileged to experience his guiding hand.

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