The California Association of Winegrape Growers is campaigning for funds from growers, vintners and others to bankroll promotion aimed at pushing California wines ahead of stiff competition by imports.

Rodney Schatz, Lodi, Calif., grower and chairman of the association, sketched elements of the promotion recently at the 2006 Winegrape Symposium in Fresno, Calif.

“This is a voluntary effort to come up with $500,000 in the next few months. If we had a dollar for every acre of wine grapes in the state, we’d meet our goal,” said Schatz as he urged growers to provide for contributions in their farming budgets.

CAWG’s approach to dealing with imports, which now claim a third of the market share, is not with tariffs or other protectionist measures. “In my opinion,” Schatz added, “we have to beat the competition on the shelves by showcasing California wines to our consumers across the entire United States.”

Although foreign countries, as well as other wine-producing states in the United States, have promotional programs, the California wine industry does not.

Promotion would be through events, feature articles, editorials and other publicity, he said, since CAWG cannot begin to pay for costly mass-media advertising.

Because California consumers already prefer California wines, he said, the promotion would be aimed primarily at consumers, retailers and restaurants elsewhere in the United States.

Schatz and Karen Ross, president of CAWG, have taken the fund-raising message throughout the state to gain pledges from the industry.

Ross noted that from the growers’ standpoint, California is their “brand,” just like large wineries have their individual brands. “Consumers want to know more about the growers, the people behind the bottle. Let the wineries promote their brand, and let the growers promote their brand.”

A key thrust of the promotion would be to tout the added quality that sustainability practices of the California industry bring to its wines. This would include Central Valley vineyards, which get practically no notice among wine publications in comparison with coastal vineyards.

CWAG engaged Wine Opinions, an Internet survey group based in St. Helena, Calif., to poll “core” wine consumers. The survey revealed a preference of consumers for wine from grapes grown with practices that are beneficial to the environment and the workers involved.

“That’s a statement we can use to promote California wine grape growers as a way to get consumers to buy more California wines,” said Schatz, who later added that he has pledged $10,000 to the campaign, well over the minimum for his nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards.

Carson Smith, Fresno grower and president of the Central California Winegrowers, cited the organization’s position that growers and vintners in Central Valley counties should cooperate in mitigating market share lost to imports.

Joining other panelists in the symposium’s analyses of the wine grape industry, Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, said the San Joaquin Valley competes well in the market of wines priced at $7 and below, which makes up 71 percent of the wine sales of grocery stores.

After a spate of wine surpluses, low prices and raisin variety acreage removals, the industry is working its way out of a rut and is presently stable, DiBuduo said.

“The imports aren’t going away and we need to be able to compete against them. Now we have to promote wines from the San Joaquin Valley. We need to stand up, be loud and be proud.”

Noting that the industry will continue to be under pressure from the global wine situation in the short term, he said he is bullish on the valley for the long term, depending on the amount of vineyards removed and which varieties are replanted.

“But if you plan on developing a new vineyard, you’d better have a contract,” he advised growers.

In the 2006 harvest, DiBuduo said, hang-time required by wineries was again an issue. “We saw a lot of grapes left out there with sugars and flavor components getting higher than they needed to be.” At the same time, those growers suffered from loss of tonnage as the grapes dried. Wineries, however, later added water to the grapes, he said.

“If that’s what wineries need to do, then they should pay the grower for the weight loss of the crop,” DiBuduo said, adding that he knows of one winery that actually did compensate a grower for tonnage loss.

DiBuduo also called for third party inspections to prevent growers being docked for material-other-than-grape and sugar readings that vary from one winery to the next.

“Quality is relative to the market you are in. We won’t produce a $50 bottle of wine in the San Joaquin Valley, but there are quality points we have to maintain to compete in a global market.”

Growers, he said, have to balance quality with production for sustainability and cost-effectiveness, and wineries need to pay a fair price for the grapes.

Panelist Tony Correia, an accredited rural appraiser at Sonoma, said vineyard land prices in the Central Valley are completely different from “insane,” highly inflated values of vineyards in coastal counties.

“The biggest factor in markets here in the valley is demographic demand. We have a lot of people with a lot of money wanting to buy a home in the country, and that has driven up prices for smaller vineyard properties.”

Values of properties having good soils and water have been buoyed by demand from growers wanting to remove vineyards to replant with pistachios and almonds.

According to surveys by the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, wine grape vineyards in Fresno and Madera counties in 2005 averaged $10,000 to $11,000 per acre, up from $8,000 in 2002.

Correia said although grape prices and land values tend to run parallel, the exception is Central Valley properties bought as home sites, and even a few Thompson Seedless vineyards of 15 acres or so have gone for as much as $24,000 an acre. “Most buyers of these small properties don’t know what it means to have a vineyard. They just know they want it.”

Offering a perspective of current research projects that could influence the future for Central Valley wine grapes was Matt Fidelibus, University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist at Parlier.

Noting that Central Valley growers depend heavily on mechanical harvesting to remain in business, Fidelibus said he is investigating a pair of plant growth regulators, methyl jasmonate and abscisic acid.

Methyl jasmonate has been shown to reduce the force needed to remove berries from stems, without damaging them, by more than two-thirds on Cabernet Sauvignon and by 75 percent on Merlot.

“This means less juicing, less oxidation, and less fermentation in the gondolas, and it could improve the value of our grapes and the quality of our wines,” he said.

Abscisic acid, now used to enhance the color of table grapes, is being evaluated for improving color, often considered insufficient in red wine varieties grown in the warmer temperatures of the valley.

UC researchers, Fidelibus said, also continue to screen several Mediterranean wine varieties for their potential in the region.