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Preparing for Armageddon? Lay up California wines

Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette supposedly retorted when told her subjects had no bread. (Actually, historians say she got a bum rap, that there's no evidence she ever uttered that infamous remark.)

Anyway, if the Al Qaeda goons or other crazies should manage to shut down the U.S. water supply, we could paraphrase the quote: “Let them drink wine.”

Every time I go to California, and I've just spent a week there, my mind is boggled at the thousands upon thousands of acres of vineyards. Up hill and over dale, grapes everywhere. The megatons of grapes produced by those vines are transformed into gazillions of gallons of wine. Every supermarket has multi-dozens of labels in a dazzling array of varieties and vintages.

The state is awash in wine. When the mania was churning out Silicon Valley millionaires by the bucketsful, it became the trendy thing to have one's own vineyard. Hang the cost. Entertainment industry zillionaires have also become winemakers, among them director Francis Ford Coppola, Fess Parker (sans coonskin cap), and the Smothers Brothers.

Glut or no, new vineyards are still going in, at $25,000 to $30,000 per acre for land, another $20,000 to $25,000 per acre for vines, trellising, irrigation, etc. But a flood of wine imports as a result of world market policies makes California's excess all the more dicey. Little wonder grape prices are skidding and some growers are turning to other crops… or going bankrupt.

“With a $50,000 per acre investment in a new vineyard, there's no way to make money long term,” says Charlie Barra, with whom fellow editor Harry Cline and I visited at Redwood Valley Vineyards at Ukiah. “This business has its up-and-down cycles, just like the rest of agriculture. If you get in at the right point of the cycle, you might make some money when prices are high. But long term, with that kind of investment, no.”

Barra, 76, who's spent a lifetime growing grapes, has been through a lot of ups and downs. He's been successful through astute, hands-on management, watching his pennies, and turning out a quality product. Not long ago, he purchased a winery, which is run by his wife, Martha.

Charlie's also done something not many others have accomplished profitably: he grows his grapes organically. “It has worked well for us at this location,” he says. Quality and tonnage are equal to or better than conventional production and his grapes have gone to some of the best wineries.

It's said if California were a country, it'd be the world's fifth largest economy. But that economy now also is saddled with the largest debt of any state in the nation. And too much wine. But says Charlie Barra with a smile: “That's to the consumer's benefit — cheaper wine.”

One winemaker, Charles Shaw, has been buying up wineries' excess capacity and selling it for $1.99 a bottle. “Two Buck Chuck,” he's laughingly called. But people are filling their cars, SUVs, and vans with cases of the stuff and he's chortling all the way to the bank.

So, do your part to help rescue California: Buy more of their wine.


TAGS: Management
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