Dana Merrill of Templeton, Calif., and Richard Smith of Soledad, Calif., have almost seven decades of combined experience growing wine grapes on California’s Central Coast.

That more than qualifies them to be the stars of a 'Wine Grape Grower Survivor.'

“I am not sure how I made it this far,” laughs Merrill, who grew up farming many crops on the Central Coast. He produced his first grape crop 30 years ago.

Smith and his family’s companies, Valley Farm Management and Paraiso Vineyards and Winery, have logged 39 years of wine grape growing there.

Together, Smith and Merrill manage and farm almost 10 percent of the 91,000 acres of wine grapes now in the ground in Monterey, San Luis and Santa Barbara counties.

They have survived more ups and downs than a Tommy “Yo-Yo Man” Smothers yo-yo. That’s why those attending the recent VINE Symposium in Paso Robles, Calif., had more than a passing interest in what they had to say.

The last decade overall has been the most challenging for wine grape growers on the Central Coast, particularly the last few years when growers have struggled not only to get decent prices for their grapes, but often simply to find a home.

The sad irony of the situation was evident when Smith told symposium attendees that wineries began shopping for 2011 grapes last November at the same time some Central Coast growers watched unharvested or unsold grapes raisin on the vine. Go figure.

Fortunately, both Smith and Merrill said demand for Central Coast grapes should be stronger this season. If there are weather or production problems this year that reduce the crop, the turnaround could come quickly, added Smith.

“I know people who need grapes; they just do not know how badly they need them,” said Smith, who said he sold grapes the week he spoke; one variety for price and the other for a price to be determined from one of his long-time buyers.

Merrill’s Mesa Vineyard Management Company is involved in all aspects of wine grape growing from developing vineyards to selling wine within its 6,000-acre portfolio.