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Unified Wine and Grape Symposium a revealing event

Unified Wine and Grape Symposium is always interesting. It attracts more people each year. It has grown to the largest event of its kind in the U.S. This year 11,500 registered, 1,000 more than last year.

It is always a revealing event for growers and journalists alike in finding the latest in the industry.

It was interesting this year that during the acknowledged upbeat session called the state of the industry there was one (and only one) audience response during an excellent set of presentations. It was when Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, said it was time grape growers made profits like wineries have been. Whether his admonition will be taken to heart remains to be seen this season.

The annual presentation from Jon Fredrikson is a Unified event everyone anticipates. The man is a walking barometer of wine industry trends.

His winery of the year award is always a highlight. This year it went to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a Washington state-based, public company that now owns six distinct, separate wineries in Washington, Oregon and California.

Ted Baseler, Ste. Michelle president, also was a speaker and detailed past and future trends he sees in the business.

He talked about the growth of the wine industry in the U.S.; changing consumer tastes; increasing global wine competition; and new trends in distribution of wine — which are now showing up in wine clubs, sport stadiums, the Internet, concerts, movie theaters, and even car washes. Why not shop for a bottle of wine or maybe have a glass of wine while waiting for workers to dry off your car. Beats reading all those greeting cards.

One of Fredrikson's comments was another subtle, but telling moment at Unified. After he made the announcement about Ste. Michelle, he added it was nice to have an award recipient on hand for a change. Many of his past award recipients, like Bronco and others, have avoided public recognition at Unified.

His comment was telling also because of what he and Baseler shared about Ste Michelle. It is a public company and as such what Ste. Michelle does is a matter of public record, like the unprecedented $354 million in net sales the company registered in 2007, a net sales increase of 25 percent and double what it did in 2000. Not only that, the company showed an operating profit up 36 percent to $59.9 million, up 244 percent from operating profit in 2000.

Ste. Michelle's sales and profits beg the question whether the other more silent types — Gallo, Wine Group, Constellation and Bronco — experienced similar profits. Growers will never know the answer to that question. Fred Franzia of Bronco will never be on a panel at Unified, nor will a Gallo family member.

However, if wineries have been making the type of profits Ste. Michelle did last year, they are obligated to increase grape prices to growers. And any attempt to skirt paying higher California grape profits by importing less expensive imports should be met by a quick government investigation.

Sure, as private businesses wineries have a right to conduct business as they choose, as long as it is legal. However, let us not forget that three wineries control 60 percent of the wine market and the top 10 control 83 percent of the market.

You cannot have an untouched wine monopoly without some responsibility to growers.

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