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Group hopes to enfold those not yet organized: Wine grape growers uniting

There are 30 wine grape grower/vintner associations representing 40 percent of California's 3.5-million-ton annual grape crush.

And now there is an organization representing the other 60 percent. It is the Central California Winegrowers (CCW), created to represent the 1,800 grape growers who produce wine grapes from Stanislaus to Kern County, the heart of the California wine industry.

Its leaders are producers who have ridden the high and low tides of Central California over the past three decades. Right now the industry is in one of its deepest troughs. Supplies are high and prices are low. Some grapes were not harvested last season and the same is expected this year. Raisin producers are in the midst of a vine pullout program because raisin bins are bulging with unsold raisins.

The upswings from coolers, concentrate and the French Paradox since the mid-70s were largely serendipitous and welcome. CCW president Carson Smith of Fresno, who manages 6,000 acres of vines, said the San Joaquin Valley wine grape industry cannot wait for the next unexpected windfall to reverse the downward price spiral because it may never come.

“Like so many commodities, there are many places in the world producing wine grapes and doing as good a job as we are meeting demand,” said Smith. SJV wine grape growers must take control of their destiny.

“We did not want to wake up some morning and wonder why we did not do something to save the San Joaquin Valley wine grape industry,” said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, treasurer of CCW and one of the driving forces behind the formation of the association. Other CCW leaders include vice chairmen Bob Loquaci of Madera and Ron Metzler of Fresno and secretary Andrew Zaninovich. All are longtime leaders in valley agriculture.

Informational meeting

The fledgling 20-member CCW hopes to convince other valley producers of the urgency of the situation and a need for action in an informational meeting July 18 at the California State University Viticulture and Enology Research Center. It will be from 6-8 p.m. and will include a tasting of quality wines produced from valley grapes.

Pulling out thousands of acres of vines would obviously help the supply side of the equation, but that is not likely to happen because there are not economically viable alternatives to grapes today or the foreseeable future.

Therefore, according CCW leadership, quality must improve not just to improve prices, but to sell wine grapes in today's oversupplied market. Quality may mean the difference between grapes raisining on the vine during the winter or being harvested.

“From the very beginning of when we started meeting to form CCW, the emphasis has been on improving quality…supporting education and research to produce better quality wine grapes from the Central Valley,” said Smith.

“CCW is not a bargaining association or a marketing order,” said DiBuduo. “It is strictly a voluntary organization to improve the quality and reputation of the wine grapes produced in the central valley.”

Improvements possible

“However, we don't have to sit around and wait for research to be completed. There are things we can do today that have already been proven — irrigation is one. We irrigate too much. Canopy management and fertilizer are other area where quality can be improved,” said Smith.

“We can certainly improve what we are doing to improve quality. The Central Coast went through a learning curve to find which techniques and varietals fit where. We need to get our arms around what we do best and do that,” said Smith.

“We can manipulate crop load through irrigation management. We probably cannot pull leaves like they do in cooler climates because of the potential of sunburn, but we can adapt viticultural practices to give wineries the best product possible,” said DiBuduo.

More than that, there has to be a mind set change — away from maximum tonnage, Smith said. “There are more than enough grapes for the market, now the push for quality has to come in. It may not now bring higher prices, but it may sell.”

DiBuduo and Smith both say the state's largest wineries and the biggest buyers of valley grapes, Gallo, Canandaigua, Gold State Vintners, Delicato and others, are behind this push for quality and support CCW.

“Some of these wineries held meetings for their growers over the past two years to talk to growers about what they can do in the vineyard to produce quality,” said Smith.

“I think there is a lot better recognition that if we as growers do not succeed, wineries do not succeed,” said DiBuduo.

A CCW goal

Recognition for valley wine grapes is also a part of CCW's goal. With more than two millions tons crushed each year, valley grapes are obviously enjoyed by consumers, albeit almost anonymously.

It is fair to say that a California appellation wine contains valley grapes whether it is varietal or generic wines. A big step in gaining more specific valley recognition has been the award winning wines produced by the CSUF winery, the first of its kind on a university campus.

“Organizations like the Madera County vintners group are really going to help. They had a kickoff tasting trail and had a big local response,” Smith said. “When people in the valley realize that local wineries can produce quality wines, then there will be broader recognition.”

The local grower/vintner organization model is the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission. Created more than 10 years ago by a growers vote, the commission now has a $1 million annual budget for programs in marketing, grower education and viticultural research.

Must be model

The commission represents almost 800 producers farming 80,000 acres vineyards. In the past decade, the wine grape acreage in Lodi-Woodbridge has nearly doubled while the crop value has quadrupled. From just a handful of Lodi-labeled wines, there are now more than 100 Lodi brands. It recently opened the Lodi Wine and Visitors Center. Lodi before the commission was jug red wines grapes and late-season Tokay table grapes.

“Lodi-Woodbridge has to be the model for us; that is a lot to hope for. Lodi has advantages we do not,” said Smith.

For one it is a relatively small group or producers in an isolated area. “Lodi developed vineyards into an upswing market and were able to incorporate a lot of newer viticultural techniques with that,” said Smith.

Lodi-Woodbridge also grew in a market when high priced North Coast varietals drew wineries to Lodi for cheaper, yet high quality alternatives.

“In the valley, we are still dealing with a majority of acres planted into the jug wine boom of the 70s. There are vast acreages of French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, Barbera and Ruby Cabernet still here from that era,” said Smith.

A bigger challenge for CCW than Lodi-Woodbridge is the wide geographic diversity. “We are talking about a very big area. It is pretty tough to be all things to everybody from Stanislaus to Kern,” said Smith.

Nevertheless, Smith, DiBuduo and the other CCW leaders are optimistic they will succeed in raising the bar of valley wine grapes.

“We do produce good grapes in the valley — good every day table wines and I think we have the ability to take that to the next level,” said DiBuduo.

That has become almost imperative for survival.

“Unfortunately, this is probably the best time to get something started like Central California Winegrowers,” said Smith. “A few years ago when there were shortages of Merlot and Chardonnay, everything would sell. Now there isn't that demand. What sells first is quality.

“Quality will hopefully bring higher prices in the future, but right now quality is what is selling period,” said Smith.

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