California wine grape growers and vintners have long had an alliance, albeit unholy seasonal ones at times when there were surpluses or shortages of grapes and wine.

Unfortunately, California wine grape growers learned a valuable lesson in 2006 when they woke up to the reality that the grapes they grow are in a highly competitive global wine marketplace where their grapes can be replaced by wine from some other nation.

Last season growers were coming off a huge '05 crush they knew filled winery tanks brim full. They did not expect high grape prices, but what they got was even worse, many wineries turned down California grapes and instead imported cheap, surplus wine, mostly from Australia, and sold it in the U.S. under an American appellation.

What was sold the year before as California white Zinfandel or Chardonnay became American Zin and American Chardonnay in identical containers that once said California wine. Growers contend consumers were misled.

California Association Winegrape Growers (CAWG) president Rodney Schatz of Lockeford, Calif., and Allied Grape Growers president NatDiBuduo of Fresno, Calif., say its is time for California wine grape growers to “take control of our destiny” and start telling consumers about the quality and value of California wine.

“Imports are up 200 percent in recent years. We cannot sit on our hands and wait for the market to shift in California's direction. We want to tell Americans now to choose California wine,” Lockeford said at CAWG's annual meeting held during the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif.

CAWG is spearheading a public relations campaign to market California wine in the U.S. CAWG has already raised about $300,000 toward its goal of $500,000 to initiate the voluntary effort.

However, Schatz and DiBuduo realize that compared to other California commodity groups' promotional efforts like California cheese and California almonds, a half million dollars is not going to go very far to promote California to U.S. consumers.

Marketing order

Schatz said CAWG's goal is eventually to create a statewide mandatory-assessment marketing order or commission to raise funds for a major California wine marketing effort.

This was the goal of an ill-fated joint winery-growers commission created in the 1980s. It fell apart after two years of acrimony between wineries and growers.

Now growers know if they want to promote California wine, it will be up to them to go it alone, said DiBuduo.

CAWG has been floating the idea of a grower-funded California wine promotion in grower meetings around California. Schatz said it has met with mixed responses.

“Many are holding on to their wallets until they see what we come up with in terms of a promotional campaign,” he said.

CAWG has contracted with a communications and advertising agency to develop a generic California wine promotion campaign. Schatz said CAWG is fine-tuning the effort; however, he said he is excited about what has been put together.

“We will roll this out in a few weeks around the state, and I think everyone will be impressed,” he said.

With a successful voluntary effort, CAWG hopes to take a California wine promotion funding to the next, mandatory level with a vote of all California growers.

“This is what it will take to have an effective buy California wine promotion program,” said Schatz.