What is in this article?:
- Lake County wine grape industry gaining identity despite economy
- Economic realities of California grape growing
- Custom crushing decisions
- Sauvignon Blanc reputation
- Over the past 20 years Lake County has worked to create its own identity and premium wine standing. There are now 32 wineries in the county and 8,400 acres of varietal wine grapes grown by 148 growers.
- Imports and the U.S. recession have hammered U.S. wine sales, particularly premium and ultra premium wines. Premium varietal grape prices have suffered right along with the wine.
- With relatively little winery buying and low prices, many growers consider custom crushing their grapes each year and sell wine in the bulk market.
Economic realities of California grape growing
Whatever allure and romanticism Weiss assumed was in premium wine grape growing almost two decades ago have run head long into the stark economic realities of growing California wine grapes today. Imports and the U.S. recession have hammered U.S. wine sales, particularly premium and ultra premium wines. Premium varietal grape prices have suffered right along with the wine. This year Weiss experienced that once again.
Some grapes were left on the vine because there were no buyers. Others were custom crushed by growers unable to find a home for them.
“There was some buying activity in the fall, but not enough. Prices for grapes this year were pretty deplorable. Prices right now are not sustainable, and I think wine grape buyers were taking advantage of the situation,” Weiss said. “I was not surprised, but I was disappointed.”
Weiss is like many growers who are faced with the decision of letting grapes rot on the vine or custom crush them, hoping to sell the juice later at a profit after paying for fermentation and storage. He crushed organic Zinfandel, non-organic Merlot and a small quantity of Sauvignon Blanc. He did not custom crush unsold Chardonnay or very much Sauvignon Blanc. The huge influx of imported Chardonnay into California in 2009 continues to hang over the white wine market.
“It was a difficult year. Rains at harvest made it even more challenging. We basically condensed an eight week harvest period into five. However, we were more fortunate in Lake than growers in Sonoma and parts of Napa. The weather was much worse there.”
However, Weiss remains “fairly optimistic about our future in Lake County.” One reason is land prices are lower than in other areas of the North Coast. Many of Lake County’s vineyards were planted in the late 1990s and early 2000s and are well suited for mechanization, making operating costs more manageable.
“You cannot mechanize everything, but we can mechanically harvest and mechanical pre-prune. I think we are more competitive as an industry because of our newer vineyards,” he said. Many of the county’s grapes are trellised using vertical shoot positioning and that offers efficient canopy management. Drip systems are universal and programmed to match rootstocks and varietal clones.
“I think we are also well–positioned because our wines are in the $20 to $30 per bottle range, and they are starting to take off again.” Wines priced $50 or higher have been hardest hit by the recession and have been slower to recover. “There are rich people who will always be in that market. A lot of people in the wine business chase that market. I don’t know if that market will come back quickly or even come back.
“Growers are under a lot of pressure right now to cut costs, but I think we are better suited to come out of this when things improve. Our operating structure is competitive. It is not Central Valley costs, but it is not typical North Coast,” Weiss says. He estimates it costs about $4,000 per acre to produce wine grapes in Lake County.