CCW president and central valley grape grower Carson Smith of Fresno says the time will come when wine grape prices will warrant planting new vineyards, but it is certainly not this year and likely not for several seasons. However, he has no doubt a new planting cycle is inevitable.

A turnaround from the low prices of the past two to three years may be at hand in 2003, and that is the reason for his prediction of a new planting cycle.

"Prices are improving for some varieties this year. Wineries are out looking for some varieties early, and that has not happened in the last three or four years," said Smith.

Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers and treasurer of CCW said there is winery interest now in SJV Merlot, Ruby Cabernet, Grenache, and Chardonnay and yes, even French Colombard.

"You have to remember that today there is only 50 percent of the French Colombard acreage that there was 10 years ago. If there was a variety that we may have pulled out too many vines, it may be French Colombard," said DiBuduo.

"We still face overall low price and oversupply problems like we have the last two season, but optimism is returning in some varieties," said Smith. He cited Zinfandel for White Zinfandel for one.

"We are also seeing a separation in pricing French Colombard and Chenin Blanc for wine rather than concentrate," said Smith. The last two years those white varieties were in such oversupply they were going to the bottom of the market for concentrate along with the huge oversupply of Thompson seedless grapes."

‘Plant smarter’

Valley wine grape veterans DiBuduo and Smith know there will be a completely, valley-wide price turnaround eventually, and they hope growers will "plant smarter" next time.

That is where they hope CCW can play a role.

Formed two years ago, CCW will hold its second annual meeting June 26 in Fresno at the California State University, Fresno Viticulture and Enology Center. It starts at 6 p.m. with a wine tasting.

CCW was formed when SJV wine and concentrate prices dropped to unprecedented low levels in 2001. CCW was created to bring together educators and researcher to "restore" the valley’s wine grape industry with research to develop wine grape varieties what will make good wine in a hot, dry climate and to create improved business opportunities for grape concentrate producers as well as public awareness of quality wines produced from SJV grapes.

At the annual meeting, Smith will detail what he described as some "exciting opportunities" created through CCW to improve the plight of SJV wine grape producers.

Much if it centers on production practices to improve wine grape quality and therefore prices. DiBuduo said CCW has begun holding workshops to implement elements of the "Code of Sustainable Winegrowing" developed by the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) and Wine Institute.

A self-assessment workbook was developed by CAWG and WI to encourage producers to evaluate and improve wine grape growing sustainability. The concept has been widely promoted in premium wine grape growing regions of the state, but this effort by CCW is the first to introduce it to SJV wine grape growers, who produce 60 percent of the state’s wine grapes from Modesto to Bakersfield.

CCW has sponsored three meetings in the valley to encourage growers to utilize the code, and about 80 producers attended.

Tool for quality

"Some of what is in the code is not pertinent to our growing practices and the prices we get for our grapes," but DiBuduo said it nevertheless is a "powerful tool" to improve wine grape quality in the valley.

CCW is also supporting a deficit irrigation study to improve wine grape quality.

Smith said CCW also has been instrumental in pushing forward a unique joint research effort between Fresno State and the University of California through its Kearney Research Center.

The research project centers on evaluating wine quality from mechanically-pruned vineyards using deficit irrigation.

"We want to see if mechanical pruning produces wine equal to or better than hand-pruned vineyards," said Smith. "Here in the valley we have to look at ways of saving production costs and mechanical pruning is one. However, we do not want to jeopardize wine quality by mechanically pruning. That would be counterproductive to what we are trying to do through CCW. Research is the way to answer those questions."

CCW has developed a Web site and brochure that will be unveiled at the annual meeting. It is designed to tell the valley’s wine story as well as be a vehicle to keep growers informed about research.

Publicize meetings

"We will publicize what we are calling tailgate meetings at the sites of some of this research to give growers and vintners an ongoing idea of what we are learning on how to improve wine grape quality and not have to wait until a research paper is written," said Smith.

"The whole idea behind CCW and what we are trying to do is not only to help producers now with improving wine grape quality but prepare us all for the time when new vineyards will be planted. We all want to be better informed on what works for us so we can plant smarter next time around," said Smith.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com