California’s central SJV wine grapes have been likened to the automotive industry, says Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers.

People are in the market for economical cars, and wine shoppers are looking for lower cost, good quality wines in this recessionary economy.

“We’re the cars they want to drive,” DiBuduo said at a grape grower tailgate meeting in Madera, Calif.; one of three presented by the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association and California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. The meetings were funded in part by grants from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Other tailgate sessions were held at Oakdale and Terra Bella. All featured talks on estate planning; the Chilean earthquake impact; a look at the marketplace for wine; updates on air quality; and steps to sustainability that include using natural enemies to fight vineyard pests.

DiBuduo was part of a panel of speakers on the market for SJV wines. Others included Steve Dorfman and John Ciatti, partners in the Ciatti Co. based in San Rafael.

The three speakers cited wine grapes in demand, as well as those not drawing much interest, and looked at sales in 2009 and what 2010 could hold.

“When it comes to Chardonnay, nobody is saying I’ve got to have some tomorrow,” DiBuduo said. Ciatti said the industry is sitting on considerable excess Chardonnay and imports have added to the abundance of that variety.

“A big crop on Chardonnay would not be welcome,” Ciatti said.

DiBuduo said there is considerable demand for reds from the San Joaquin Valley, and some whites – such as Sauvignon Blanc – are “holding their own.” Others in favor are French Colombard and Chenin Blanc.

“Muscat is another variety that’s hot; it has a good future and there is a lot that is going into the ground,” DiBuduo.

Ciatti’s advice: “Don’t pull any florals out.”

White Zinfandel is not in great demand, DiBuduo said. “The wineries have decided it’s a commodity; the key is production.”

Reds in demand include Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon and “Merlot has good interest,” DiBuduo said. As for Syrah, he said, “No significant major labels are coming out with it.”

DiBuduo said the picture for prices paid for Thompson Seedless for crushing this year could improve. There was a significant drop last year from 2008’s $225 per ton to $165 in 2009.

DiBuduo said a higher price for raisins – possibly more than $1,300 per ton – could carve into available green Thompsons. And higher apple prices and less tonnage abroad could mean a boost in pricing this year for the grape crush into concentrate or wine.

Rubired grapes for concentrate remain in high demand.

Will the consumer appetite for higher priced wines return? The panel had no firm prediction.

“The consumer has traded down and wants better quality at a lower price,” DiBuduo said. “Walk into a Costco today and look for a bottle of wine at $25 plus. Today, finding a $25 bottle of wine is problematic.”

Ciatti asked, “Will consumers come back? When was the last time you bought a $25 bottle of wine?”

Dorfman talked briefly of wine losses Chile sustained in the Feb. 27 earthquake: “It lost 15 percent of its bulk wines and that took them out of play for a time. But they will be back in 2010.”

Timing of the quake was unfortunate — hitting when tanks were full, making them more vulnerable to damage.

The tailgate program placed an emphasis on sustainability and included a talk by Kim Gallagher Horton, general manager, Sterling Insectary, McFarland, Calif. Her company sells predatory mites and beneficial insects that can be used to keep pests at bay. She emphasized control of spider mites and vine mealybugs.

Horton said spider mites, which remove chlorophyll from plants, have eggs that are round. Eggs of predatory mites are oval, she said. The predatory mites include the Western and Cali mites.

Predatory mites consume all sizes and life stages of spider mites, she said, “and their favorite food is spider mite eggs.”

Sterling Insectary purposely sprays the predators with various pesticides so that they develop a resistance to chemicals. She said growers should avoid use of stylet oil in vineyards where mites are released because is a suffocant.

Her company grows the predatory mites on soybean plants and can ship a “bouquet” containing them overnight. The predators do no feed on the foliage of plants.

A single soybean plant with predators on it is placed in the canopy on every fifth vine. Horton said it takes five people a day to distribute the plants on 40 acres.

For the vine mealybug, parasitic wasps are available. They’re sold in vials at $20 per hundred wasps, Horton said, and can be released by “tapping them out on the vines” at a rate of 100 to 500 wasps per acre. Pheromone dispensers are placed on every other vine.

Richard Loquaci, a supervisor with Madera Ag Services, showcased his Dried on the Vine (DOV) raisin grape vineyard where the Selma Pete variety is planted on Freedom rootstock. He said the grapes are grown for DOV harvest at close to 4 tons per acre. Using a machine harvester avoids the cost of paper and considerable labor. It’s an early harvesting grape that makes it less likely fall rains will pose a problem.