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Column: Giving Central Valley wine grapes recognition long overdue

Wine grapes are an agricultural commodity just like cotton, wheat, lettuce, strawberries, alfalfa, etc. Not everyone agrees with that. Some, particularly vintners and growers where the more pricey grapes are grown and wines are made, don’t like wine grapes grouped with common crops.

Nevertheless, wine grape growers spend or borrow money to grow a crop and either sell it or crush it for a consumer product. Wine grape growing is a for-profit business.

Unfortunately, California wine grape growers and vintners remain fragmented. Perhaps not as divided as in years past, but there remains lines drawn between growers and vintners and between growers in different parts of the state. Those lines represent basically differences in grape quality, largely dictated by climatic growing conditions — coastal, central valley, foothill and mountains.

Whenever someone tells me they want to visit California’s "wine country," I asked them where’s that. They say "Napa Valley."

"Wine country" is not Napa Valley. It’s the Central San Joaquin Valley. Annually, 60 percent of the grapes crushed come from vineyards from Stanislaus to Kern counties. That is more than 2 million tons of grapes. Maybe 500,000 tons of those grapes go into concentrate, leaving 1.5 million tons or more than 117 million gallons of wine. If the bottle says California on the label, it’s a pretty good bet at least some of the grapes beneath that cork came from the Central San Joaquin Valley.

The Central Valley is the foundation of the California wine grape industry whether anyone north of Modesto or west of Los Banos publicly admits it or not.

However, the central valley has never received the respect economically or verbally for its contribution to the industry.

Central California Winegrowers and other new groups like the Madera Vintners Association are trying to change that. They are trying to bring wine grape recognition long overdue to the central valley.

The state’s wine grape growers tried to unite under a state wine grape commission in the 1980s, but it collapsed because of the adversarial relationship between vintners and grape growers. Vintners don’t want growers to organize. That might affect grape prices.

However, from that ill-fated state wine grape commission came the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. The law that created the statewide commission also permitted growers to organize regionally under a mandatory marketing-order type of organization. Rather than control product, commissions typically fund research and promotion efforts.

Lodi-Woodbridge has been a remarkable example of what can happen when growers decide to join together for the betterment of all.

Central California Winegrowers would like to experience the same success as Lodi-Woodbridge, maybe not under a commission-style of organization, but as a strong regional organization to fund research and promote improved viticultural techniques.

If you grow wine grapes in the central valley, join CCW. It could be your future.

During CCW’s organizational meeting, someone said that the definition of wine grape quality is "everybody north of me." It’s time the definition for quality is all wine grapes north of the Tehachapi Mountains.

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