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Mendocino County, Calif., grape growers and winery owners Martha and Charlie Barra say JIT – just-in-time – is a concept more premium wine grape growers must embrace to survive the rough-and-tumble world of wine globalization.
JIT and globalization
JIT wine has come with globalization. California wineries and grape growers are competing against counterparts in other nations. Bulk wine is coming into the U.S. to blend with California wine for an American appellation. Increasingly, more wineries are bringing in bulk foreign wine to bottle in California as foreign wine. This is directly affecting grape marketing.
“We are paying $9 to $10 per hour for labor. Other countries are paying $10 per day. California growers cannot compete with grapes,” Charlie says.
This is the economic squeeze felt by California grape growers. “Growers in California have absolutely no bargaining power when it is time to harvest.”
This was apparent last season when wineries imported millions of gallons of economically distressed Chardonnay wine, mostly from Australia. These imports killed the 2009 Chardonnay wine grape market almost overnight and had a ripple effect across all grape sales. There was so much Chardonnay imported it still hangs over the 2010 market, according to industry experts.
“Northern Italy grape growers have been crushing their own grapes for decades and selling the wine. It will happen here. It will take time, however,” Barra says.
It is a dramatic business model change many growers resist.
Barra grew his first grape crop as a 17-year old high school senior in a leased vineyard. He began helping his father in the family’s vineyard seven years earlier, so he knew what to do. He also knew it was his life’s calling.
“I have always wanted to be a grape grower,” Barra proclaims.
“The principal did not want me to quit school so we made a deal that I could go to school a half day and farm the other half,” he said. “The first year I farmed I made three times what the principal was making. He made $3,300 a year. I made $10,000 the first year I farmed.”
Sixty-five years ago he grew vin ordinaire-type grapes for jug wines and sold to wineries like Italian Swiss Colony. “The big wineries give us the same price for our grapes as they paid for Thompson seedless from the San Joaquin Valley,” Barra recalled.
Robert Mondavi, Wente, Louie Martini and others began experimenting on the North Coast with varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s. Barra quickly bought into this new direction. He was among the first to plant them in Mendocino.
“Bob Mondavi and the other guys saved us by introducing varietals to the North Coast,” Barra said. “I sold grapes to those guys for 30 years on handshakes.”
He owes a lot more than that to many of those pioneer vintners and growers. When he was organizing the North Coast Grape Growers Association to improve prices for growers, it did not sit well with the largest winery in the state, which put out the word that no one was to buy Barra’s grapes.
“I really don’t like to say a lot about those times, but I had to take my grapes to a neighbor’s vineyard and he would get them crushed under his name,” Barra said.
One night during that period the Mack truck was headed to Livermore with a load of Barra’s grapes. The driver realized he was being followed. “The driver pulled over and walked back to the car that was tailing him and asked the driver why,” said Charlie. The driver of the tail car said he had orders to follow Barra’s grapes to see where the grapes were going. “My driver told him the grapes were going to Wente and to go home,” he said.
“I owe a lot to people like Wente, Bob Mondavi, Parducci and others.”