Demand Is High and Rising, Napa Growers Say

Representatives from regional grapegrowing association expect average yields to be an above-average commodity in 2012

by Paul Franson
napa valley grapegrowers harvest
John Conover (from left) discusses the 2012 grapegrowing season with Jon Ruel, Amy Warnock and John Wilkinson on Wednesday at Odette Estate in Napa, Calif.
Napa, Calif.—Amy Warnock opened the Napa Valley Grapegrowers' harvest press conference with a line that brought a laugh from all attending: “This will be the best harvest ever!”

Growers and wineries worldwide are famous for issuing such yearly proclamations, no matter what the conditions. This time, however, Warnock may be right. Conditions have been nearly perfect for cultivating premium winegrapes.

The viticulturist at Stagecoach Vineyard was part of a panel of four local growers speaking at Napa Valley’s Odette Estate today under cool, foggy skies.

“We had 26 inches of rain: enough to fill our reservoirs, but light enough that we could control vigor,” Warnock said. She added that the grapes have seen consistent, steady sunlight since the beginning of the season, reducing vegetative flavors, and the summer has been warm but not hot.

Ahead of last year
Warnock said that crops are two to three weeks ahead of last year. “We hope to pick earlier with ripe grapes.”

She also said that yields seem close to target. Even so, the vineyard can’t meet demand. “We have 30 wineries on our waiting list for this and next year,” Warnock said.

As a result, Stagecoach is planting and replanting—both to replace blocks infected with leafroll virus and eutypa and meet market demand. Warnock said Stagecoach has added added Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc and Roussanne vines, and is trying some Schwartzman rootstock and additional cultivars of popular grapes.

Another panel member, Jon Ruel, this year’s president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers and COO at Trefethen Family Vineyards, said, “We had warmer days and cooler nights than last year, when we had cooler days and warmer nights. This year’s conditions are much better for quality.”

Ruel also expects yields that are average to a bit above average for Trefethen’s 500 acres of vineyards in the Oak Knoll AVA.

In 2011 Jon Ruel started picking Trefethen’s grapes for still wines Sept. 24; this year he expects to begin this year about two weeks earlier.

Warnock is not yet picking at the mountainous Stagecoach Vineyards in the Atlas Peak AVA and nearby, but John Conover, general manager of PlumpJack, CADE and Odette said his team just started picking Sauvignon Blanc in warmer parts of the valley.

Skyrocketing demand
Though this should be at least an average year in terms of yields, demand for grapes has skyrocketed even more.

John Wilkinson’s Bin to Bottle custom-crush winery offers a program for growers who can’t sell grapes to make wine and only charge them a percentage of the eventual returns (80-20 program.) “That’s almost gone away,” noted Wilkinson, who is also owner of Wilkinson Family Vineyards. “Growers are getting good prices for their grapes.”

He added that some wineries went overboard buying in fear of shortage, leaving them to offer some grapes for sale—but at high prices.

The panel also discussed vineyard values and real estate. Conover’s PlumpJack Group bought Steltzner Vineyards in February, renaming it Odette Estate and undertaking significant replanting and renewal of the winery, tasting room and caves.

“The real estate market was very different a year ago,” Conover said. “It was very slow.” Speakers commented that sellers are seeing much greater interest, due in part to anticipated generational changes, but also because banks have loosened their wallets. Much of the foreign interest is coming from Asia rather than Europe.

Wilkinson added that much of the demand is for smaller vineyards in the $5 million-$20 million range, and it’s vineyards in general that buyers (especially wineries) are seeking, not winery properties.

Talking about mechanization
The growers also discussed mechanization, once an unspoken concept in Napa Valley with its bragging about hand-crafted wines. “No one wants to compromise quality,” Warnock noted, “but new harvesters only pick the grapes you specify.” She is also looking at mechanical leaf pullers. “We’ll do trials in 2013.”

Wilkinson added sorting as a popular type of mechanization, saying it saves labor and improves quality.

Vineyard labor
One reason growers and wineries are looking at mechanization is concern about labor shortages, although it doesn’t seem a big issue in Napa Valley—yet.

Jon Ruel said that a shortage of workers developed early this season when vine growth that had to be tamed, but things have settled down since then. “Napa Valley is somewhat better off than other areas because we offer better wages, benefits and almost year-round employment,” he noted. “Half the workers have 401(k) plans,” he claimed.

The Grapegrowers also raised $365,000 for farmworker education—not just in growing grapes but also towards management and integration into the community. They recently held a daylong festival for 1,500 workers and their families, including introducing them to community assistance programs.

In sum, the panel noted that demand is up, yield should be good this year and consumer demand is rising—especially for quality wines. “Consumers seek authenticity in wine, and they recognize that Napa Valley is a special place,” Ruel summarized.

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