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California Grape Acreage Report: Pinot Noir on a roll

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The 2008 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses from the Dept. of Food and Agriculture, and as usual it makes for fascinating reading for statistically-minded geeks.

Highlights:

Overall acreage of all wine grape types remained virtually unchanged from the last 2 years. Both red and white wine bearing acreage was down slightly in 2008 compared to 2007, but non-bearing acreage increased slightly. Bottom line: statewide grapevine acreage is in a period of static activity.

The devil, as usual, is in the details.

Among major varieties, the following were all slightly reduced in bearing acreage in 2008, compared to 2007: Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. The following varietals were all slightly up: Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The actual percentages, both of increased and decreased acreage, were very small (on the order of a few percentage points), but it’s interesting that the “hottest” varieties — Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris — all saw increases. What growers plant, of course, is what they believe will be selling down the line.

Digging deeper, of all wine grape types, red and white, guess which one has by far the greatest number of non-bearing acres: Pinot Noir. In 2008, there  were 7,573 acres of the grape which had not yet yielded fruit. That is half of all the red non-bearing acres in California, and 5 times as much as the acreage of the #1 white non-bearing variety, Pinot Gris. This provides further testimony that growers are putting their chips on the two Pinots.

Where is all the new non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage planted? The county with the most new plantings of the great grape of Burgundy is — ta da!Monterey. The Report doesn’t state where in Monterey the 2,558 non-bearing acres are, but my hunch would be a combination of the Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, and the Pinnacles area in the eastern Gavlian Mountains. After Monterey, the county with the second-highest acreage of non-bearing Pinot Noir is San Luis Obispo, most likely in the Edna Valley, with some Arroyo Grande Valley. Taken together, Monterey and SLO account for 3,650 non-bearing acres of Pinot Noir, nearly 50% of the non-bearing total for the variety in California, and exactly ten times the non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage in Sonoma County (although Sonoma has by far the highest bearing acreage of Pinot Noir in the state). If you add Santa Barbara, with its 830 non-bearing Pinot Noir acres, the Central Coast boasts nearly 60% of all the non-bearing Pinot in California.  This should convince anyone that these 3 Central California counties are making a serious play to become the Pinot Noir capital of the state.

Cabernet Sauvignon is striking in its contrast to Pinot Noir. Altogether, there’s only 1,578 non-bearing acres of it in California. That’s 1/5 the number of non-bearing Pinot Noir. Of course, there’s a lot more bearing acres of Cabernet (73,420) than bearing acres of Pinot Noir (25,737) in California. But Pinot Noir has been increasing in acreage literally twice as fast as Cabernet Sauvignon since 2000, and even faster post-Sideways. If that pace continues, Pinot’s acreage will equal Cabernet’s one of these days. (If I were handier with mathematics, I could tell you exactly when; maybe someone out there can figure it out.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that Pinot Noir is on a roll. It has become the most exciting wine type in California, red or white, and growers are betting the house on it.

  1. I think it bodes well for more and better quality Pinot at all price points. While the Sideways bubble has deflated, I still think that long-term Pinot has a bright future and will rival the kind of volume that Cab and Merlot represent someday.

  2. Steve
    It’s refreshing to see a blogger who addresses the nuts and bolts of this business, instead of the usual self-referential marketing BS. I’m not surprised by the Pinot noir statistics. It’s a classic case of over-reaction to trends. In five years, Pinot noir will be oversupplied, which is fine by me. I’m surprised that more Pinot Grigio isn’t being planted. I think your guess as to where the bulk of the new Pinot noir is planted is wrong. I think it’s in the upper part of the county- Greenfield.

  3. Mark: Do you mean you think they’re planting Pinot Noir right on the Salinas Valley floor?

  4. Steve–

    I hope you are right about the location of the new Monterey plantings, but experience has shown that when large plots go in, they to further south in warmer areas. There are a few locations in the Santa Lucia Mountains, south of the AVA of Santa Lucia Highlands, that have reasonable potential, but if the flat and warm areas from King City south are the recipient of these new plantings, then we are in for a torrent of wine that we may not like.

    Charlie

  5. Charlie, you’re right, but I can’t believe there would be large plantings of PN down there. The wines would be awful, would get bad reviews and nobody would buy them. Would they?

  6. Doesn’t it seem a bit risky to put so much effort into Pinot Noir? It seems that every few years one particular varietal is all people talk about and drink. Then whether its the style or perhaps people are tired of the same wine over and over, its great days are over. Think about the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) crowd. Consider also that Oregon is producing some great Pinot Noir wines. California will have some tough competition. Riedel has even made a special glass for Oregon Pinot Noir.

  7. Kathy: You’re right that every few years there’s a “new kid on the block” — a new hot variety everybody drinks until the next new hot variety comes along. But in the case of Pinot Noir, I think it’s a stayer. PN isn’t just another variety, it’s one of the noble wine types in the world. There’s a reason Burgundy has been celebrated for centuries. So I think PN in California has finally earned its place beside Cabernet Sauvignon at the pinnacle of red wines.

  8. While on that topic, does anyone have a guess for what the “new kid on the block” will be? Or are there any predicted main-stayers in the near future? Due to your experience, I’d be interested to hear your predictions on that, Steve.

  9. Dylan, people have been predicting great things for Tempranillo for years now. In whites, as I’ve previously written, I think the future is looking good for crisp, unoaked (or very lightly oaked) dry white wines. I also think imports will be more important than ever.

  10. Fred Nickel says:

    The Grape Acreage Report is always a fun tool to view near term planting trends, but the shear volume of Pinot should scare the heck out of everybody. Especially the entities sticking it in the ground now. Best hope their business plans do not rely upon $2000 a ton and 5 tpa. And Mr. Heimoff is correct, it is one of the most treasured varieties in the world, but as much as I adore the central coast… Monterey ain’t Burgundy.

  11. Keep making Riesling for myself….

  12. Fred, the challenge in California Pinot Noir is to make a less expensive style (Santenay-style) that people can afford. If Monterey can accomplish that, it will have done a great thing. Currently, most under $20 Pinot Noir is pretty bad.

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