Clarksburg Seeks Consumer Awareness

Inland California wine-growers discuss marketing, costs and grape contracts

by Jon Tourney
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New Pinot Noir vineyards (this one planted in 2008) are being planted in the Clarkburg AVA under winery contracts.
Walnut Grove, Calif. -- The Clarksburg American Viticultural Area (AVA) covers 57,000 acres in Sacramento and Yolo Counties with 17,000 acres of vineyards planted between levees that line the rivers and sloughs of this California Delta region. With warm days and cool nights, the Delta's cooling influence enables production of varieties not typically grown in California's inland regions. The area grows 25 varieties, and plantings of Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio have increased significantly since 2006. Production is nearly 70% white varieties, led by Chardonnay, then Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The percentage of red varieties is catching up, led by Merlot, then Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.

At Clarksburg Grape Day March 5, the Clarksburg Wine Growers & Vintners Association (CWGVA) presented plans for new promotional programs to increase consumer awareness of the appellation. The annual meeting, organized by CWGVA and UC Cooperative Extension's Sacramento County farm advisor Chuck Ingels, also focused on economic issues related to cost-effective vineyard management and grower contracts.

Many of Clarksburg's growers come from families that have farmed locally since the 1800s. But winegrape growing began more recently in the 1960s when the Bogle family started planting vineyards and later launched the area's highest production, and best known winery. With about 75 members, CWGVA added "Vintners" to its name recently to reflect growth in local wineries and tasting rooms that number about a dozen. CWGVA President Tim Waits, owner of Lake Winchester Vineyards, said, "We've been a large grape production area for many years, but we haven't done much until now for local winery promotion."

Greater identity desired

As pointed out in a presentation by Jeff Bitter of Allied Grape Growers, Clarksburg is well-known within the wine industry as a source of quality, value-priced winegrapes, but has little identity among consumers and people outside the industry. The area has a large potential for visitors, with its northern tasting rooms located just 20 miles from downtown Sacramento.

CWGVA programs being planned include:
  • Sustainable certification of vineyards through a partnership with the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission to use the "Lodi Rules" certification standards and program, but with a different name for promotion and labeling.
  • Partnering with the Discover the Delta Foundation that will begin construction this year on the Delta Information Center near Rio Vista to provide tourist info on "Delta Wine Country," hold tasting events, and have a farm stand to sell area wines and ag products.
  • New promotional materials and maps, a new "Clarksburg Wine Country" logo, and directional signs to increase tourism at local tasting rooms.

Two Pinots and Petite Sirah

Bitter sees great potential for several Clarksburg varieties, but the challenge will be getting higher prices to move beyond the value price level. "I think Clarksburg is the best region in the state for Pinot Grigio," he said. Clarksburg is recognized for quality Petite Sirah, with several wine labels consistently producing award-winning wines from the area. "More people are coming to us and asking for Petite Sirah in the value category, and more and more it's being recognized as a great blender," Bitter said. "Of all the interior regions, you have the most potential to do well with Pinot Noir long term," he said. "I'm bullish on Clarksburg," he added.

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Clarksburg's vineyards are commonly seen near the region's Delta levees.
Waits is a newer grower in the area, with 60 acres of Petite Sirah planted in 2004, and 80 acres of Pinot Noir planted in 2008. Gallo has signed planting contracts with local growers for much of the new Pinot Noir going in, and Waits estimates that Pinot acreage in the AVA could exceed 3,000 acres in the near future.

Clarksburg grapes are being purchased regularly for over 90 wine labels, and Bitter recommended growers target California's top 25 production wineries for future growth in grape sales and when looking for planting contracts. He said growers have potential to receive more income through quality bonuses in contracts. Gallo has paid bonuses, and others pay bonuses based on grape sugar levels, or for sustainable certification. Bitter also advised paying attention to production costs. "Fully understand your actual total cost of farming," he concluded.

The Grape Day vineyard management sessions focused on cost-effective practices. Viticulturist Chris Storm of Vino Farms based in Lodi, with 1,500 acres of Clarksburg vineyards and 12,000 acres statewide, discussed the value of vineyard pest monitoring and record keeping to make spray applications only when needed and in the right amount, for better economics and efficiency. He noted that his company saved 25% on pest control costs for 4,500 acres last year through better monitoring and management. Vino Farms vineyard manager Craig Ledbetter said vineyard mechanization has helped the company save about $70/acre for leaf pulling, and more than 50% on pruning costs in 900 acres that are now mechanically pruned.

Grape payment delinquencies

Clarksburg Vineyards
UC Extension farm advisor Chuck Ingels, and attorney Dale Stern at Clarksburg Grape Day.
Attorney Dale Stern, of Stern/Van Vleck LLP in Sacramento, provided advice on grower contracts and how to avoid the risk of non-payment. As a reflection of economic times, Stern said, "This year I've filed more complaints with the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) for growers that did not get paid by wineries, than in the past 20 years." Stern has acted as general counsel for the California Association of Winegrape Growers for 22 years, and helps draft grower contracts and resolve disputes.

Under the state producers lien law, a lien is attached immediately upon delivery of grapes, and it is illegal to transfer that (grape or wine) property to someone else without paying the grower. The CDFA Market Enforcement Branch website, www.cdfa.ca.gov/mkt/meb, has a list of wineries and agents licensed to buy grapes in California. It should be checked for the buyer's name before a contract is signed. When CDFA receives a complaint about non-payment, it will investigate the buyer's ability to pay, and if the buyer cannot, its purchaser's license can be suspended or revoked. A grower has nine months from the payment due date to file a complaint with Market Enforcement, two years to file a lawsuit if the contract was verbal, and four years to file suit if the contract was written.

Stern listed several tips to help get paid: don't waive lien rights by signing them away due to a contract clause, properly identify the buyer's name in the contract as it appears in the CDFA list of licensed purchasers, stay informed about your grapes and their location as they go through wine processing, and "don't dally with delinquencies"--inform the buyer that payment is past due and work out a payment plan.

He cautioned that the producer's lien does not apply to all custom crush arrangements. For those who sell through a broker, Stern said the state's major grape brokers are rarely problematic, but sometimes smaller brokers have tried to take title to the grapes under a contract, even though the grower is protected from this by lien law. Stern recommends due diligence before signing a contract by researching as much as possible about the buyer's/winery's finances, the value of the winery and its bond, and its business history. "When you sell grapes to a winery, you are basically extending them credit until you receive payment, so be sure to check them out before you contract with them," Stern advised
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