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February 1, 2024
Jeff Bitter knew that his message at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium wouldn’t be popular. During the conference’s annual state-of-the-industry presentation Jan. 25 in Sacramento, Bitter had the unenviable task of telling growers they needed to remove 50,000 acres of vineyards – of about 575,000 bearing acres statewide – to preserve their industry’s profitability.
Bitter, the president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, has been in this situation before. In 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic was to cause upheaval throughout the economy, Bitter urged conference attendees – many of whom are his clients – to raze 30,000 acres to offset a glut of wine grapes that had developed because of several big crops and a lull in global wine consumption.
Growers responded by taking out about half of those acres, mostly on marginal ground where it was more difficult to turn a profit. But short crops in 2020 and ’21 cured the glut and stabilized the industry – temporarily. In his 2022 presentation, Bitter described the industry’s supply-and-demand situation as “stable with a chance of oversupply.”
Larger crops soon returned the industry to an oversupply of grapes, however. Because they’ve satisfied their contracts with wineries and couldn’t find buyers for their excess grapes on the spot market, growers have had to leave grapes on the vine in three of the last five seasons, signaling a structural oversupply. So this time, Bitter wasn’t mincing words.
“The reality is that waning demand and an average-plus-size crop have left us with an undesired inventory,” he said. “We’re not making any money sitting on inventory.”
Bitter set specific reduction targets for each region of California “so you’ll know I’m looking at you,” he told growers. The goal in taking out 50,000 acres of older vineyards is to offset the nearly 20,000 newly planted acres that are coming online this year, for a net reduction of 30,000, he said.
For emphasis, he finished with slides of memes depicting himself with a bullhorn, yelling “When confused, remove!” and “If in doubt, pull it out!”
This wasn’t coming from someone with an ax to grind against agriculture. AGG is a 500-member, grower-owned marketing association that sells wine grapes to buyers of all types, so Bitter was essentially talking to his bosses.
It’s not the kind of job you take if you obsess over being popular, but Bitter is popular and respected. People understand how hard he works for his clients and his industry, and they trust him precisely because he’s willing to speak hard truths to friendly audiences.
His honest approach – and that of other leaders in ag and Extension - is refreshing in our age of endless spin. It’s an approach that we should all emulate.
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