History brings perspective to the present, and there is no one better to provide a vantage point on today of California's wine industry than 77-year-old Mendocino County grape grower Charlie Barra.
This vintage is Barra's 57th. Through almost six decades Barra has been a leader in and witness to the remarkable evolution of the California wine grape industry.
The Ukiah, Calif., grower still has the fighting resolve of a bantee rooster. His bottom jaw juts out slightly in his ever-present smile as he talks about the transformation of North Coast and California wine grape growing. His sentences are punctuated with a distinctive yet sly laugh that leaves the impression you don't want to horse trade with Charlie Barra.
Barra was part of a tenacious band of wine grape growers who recorded more than a few political fleecings for the good of growers in the post World War II era when California's wine grape industry began to emerged from the mundane toward today's world-renown reputation as a world class wine producer.
For those who complain about today's wine grape oversupply and low prices — which Barra says growers have only themselves to blame for — imagine the life of a grape growers just 40 years ago:
Wineries bought wine grapes on open price contracts. Growers often did not know what they would be paid for one year's crop until almost bud break of the next season.
Varietal wines could contain as little as 51 percent of the varietal on the label. Now it must be 75 percent.
Appellations were virtually nonexistent, and wineries could bottle a “North Coast wine” with grapes from elsewhere.
Barra was one of the co-founders and the first president of the North Coast Grape Growers Association, the first grape grower organizations in California. It remains the only association that yearly recommends prices growers should ask for their grapes based on supply and demand.
“We organized because we knew as growers we had to have a level playing field with the wineries,” he said.
Barra joined in those early winery battles not only to improve the plight of growers, but for “everyone connected with wine — growers, wineries and consumers.”
“Karl Wente told me that when the California wine industry started making jug wines out of Cabernet Sauvignon Americans would start drinking California wine. He was right,” said Barra, who sold grapes to Went for three decades. “Before that jug wine was Thompson seedless and apple juice.”
Growers like Barra fought to raise the mandatory labeled varietal percentage in wine to 75 percent.
“One of the big wineries came to me when we were in the fight to raise the percentage and said ‘Charlie, you are never going to get 100 percent. Will you take 75 percent?’ I told him ‘let me take it to the boys and see what they say,’” said Barra. He could hardly contain himself. He knew growers had won a legal and legislative battle that had gone on for a decade.
“The growers said absolutely, and we increased the varietal content of wine by 50 percent,” laughed Barra.
When growers went to Sacramento seeking legislation to end open price contracts, only the chairman of the 13-member State Senate ag committee appeared for the first hearing on the bill.
Took five years
“I don't blame the wineries. The big boys had their thumbs on everybody and did not want to let go. It took us five years to end open price contracts.
“The point of all this is that the wine got better and the wineries benefited; growers benefited, and most importantly, consumers benefited,” said Barra.
“When I started growing grapes you could put 10 bottles of California wine on a table, and five would not be drinkable. Today you put 50 wines on a table, and they are all drinkable. They will be different, but there will not be a bad bottle in the lot,” said Barra.
Barra now produces wine grapes from 200 acres of wine grapes in Redwood Valley. He has farmed as much as 400 acres of vines. He grew his first wine grape crop in 1946 as a high school senior. He sold 150 tons of Zinfandel for $135 per ton, making three times what his high school principal made. The principal wanted Charlie to attend college.
“I told him if I made $10,000 I would not go to college. That was three times what he was making,” said Barra. The bottom fell out of the Zin market the next year, but Charlie has never regretted making his life's work growing wine grapes.
He grew up in vineyards his immigrant family planted. He could prune a vine when he was 10 and jokes that his high school graduation present was pruning shears.
After a few years growing what he called “standard” grapes, 20-year-old Barra saw Mondavi varietal wines selling in stores for almost twice that of cheap wines made from what he was growing. He was one of the first growers on the North Coast to plant Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Petite Syrah. Robert Mondavi, Wente and Myron Nightengale mentored him on varietal selection based on soil and climate.
Cheaper and works
The industry has changed dramatically in the past five decades, but Barra's farming has not. “I've been called old world, but that's OK. It's a lot cheaper that what a lot of people pay today and it works,” said Barra. He consistently produces four to five tons per acre and sells at top dollar.
Barra's vines are still in 10-foot rows and a 42-inch high cordon on a wire and a single catch wire. That is higher than most. And for the past decade he has grown grapes organically, but wine grapes are not that difficult to produce without synthetic chemicals, he adds.
Barra was one of the first to install overhead sprinklers for frost control. He also applies wettable sulfur and cooper for disease control through the sprinklers.
“The first two sprays for powdery mildew are through the sprinklers,” he said.
Using an Ag Master mixer, Barra can sulfur 150 acres for powdery mildew in four hours. It takes four to five days on a tractor to cover the same area.
“We also use the sprinklers to apply copper for botrytis,” said Barra. He also pulls leaves and thins for disease control. Air movement and reduced moisture content in the canopy prevent botrytis from building up.
“If you want to have disease, trellis the vines close to the ground where it is always wet and musty,” said Barra.
Barra has never planted a nursery-grafted vine. He has bought and planted St. George rootstock for years and field grafted. “We buy wild roots because I want to see the leaves to know I am getting St. George. We have never had a problem with phylloxera,” said Barra.
“People have found out with all this phylloxera stuff that St. George is a pretty good rootstock, and it is hard to find any more. I have gone to 110R — it's pretty similar to St. George,” he said.
He likes some of the newer California varietals like, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese and Shirah. Some have struggled in the marketplace, others, like what Barra calls “soft reds, like Merlot, are catching on. It will take time to perfect these wines just like the early days of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Most wine drinkers today want a soft wine. A Petite Sirah is a much bigger wine and has a lot more character, but it is not for everyone,” said Barra, who has recently added winery owner to his resume. He is partner in Redwood Valley Cellars in Ukiah with a capacity of three million gallons of wine. He also started a smaller winery, Barra of Mendocino, for making estate bottled wine and has pocketed many medals for his Barra of Mendocino wines.
Wife Martha says her husband's boundless energy has slowed down a bit. “I only work part-time — 12 hours a day,” he laughed.
“Would you believe he planted a new 15 acres last year?” said Martha.
‘Take little ride’
Barra is a third generation wine grape grower who will turn 78 in December. Barra's favorite phrase for anyone who visits his place is “let's take a little ride through the vineyard.” His enthusiasm has never waned. He's as proud of his vineyard today as the day he planted the first vine and dug the first irrigation pond.
As for the future of his industry, Barra says the current oversupply and down market will right itself like it has more than once during Barra's career. “Back when we were trying to make all the changes, we made it too good. We were too successful” because grapes were overplanted. And it has happened more than once since.
“The business goes through good and bad times,” said Barra.
“When times are good, we buy a lot of paint to paint the houses, worker housing, barns,” chimed in Martha.
“We have not bought a lot of paint lately,” she laughs.
“The government could stabilize things so everyone could subsist like a lot of ag products. I like it up and down, but you had better save a little when things are going well,” said Barra. “If you do a good job of growing the grapes, you will always do OK.”
Overproduction benefits consumers and expands markets. Growers last year received half of what they were paid for grapes two years ago. Barra calls that “the cost of wine promotion paid by growers.
“It's all part of the system. The industry will right itself in the next five years and then sail along until the next down cycle. That is the way it has always worked.”