Is there too much Pinot Noir growing in California?
I drive down to one of my favorite events of the year today. World of Pinot Noir is still held at the Cliffs Resort, in Shell Beach (San Luis Obispo County), as it has been for the last eleven years. I went to the first one, fell in love with it on the spot, and have gone ever since.
In advance of going, I checked out some Pinot Noir statistics here in California. The Department of Food & Ag just sent out the 2010 crush report. There was actually a little less Pinot crushed in 2010 than in 2009, but if you go back just six vintages, to 2004, the number of tons crushed of Pinot Noir was less than half of what it was last year: 70,000, versus 147,000.
That’s a big increase, more than 100%. For comparison’s sake, in the same two vintages (2004 and 2010), Cabernet Sauvignon went up 23.6%, Chardonnay was up 24.5% and Sauvignon Blanc (the next most widely planted white grape after Chardonnay, excluding French Columbard) was up 30%.
Sure, Pinot’s tonnage started from a smaller base than did the other three, but the fact is (hold onto you hats) that Pinot Noir, in 2010, was the fourth highest red grape in tons crushed in all of California, beaten out only by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel (and again, excluding a grape nobody cares about because it goes into jug wines, Rubired). There was even more Pinot Noir crushed last year than Syrah. If crush increases at another 100% rate for the next six years, Pinot Noir’s numbers will soar, making one wonder if there are enough people to drink it all.
What about acreage? The Food & Ag people haven’t released the 2010 Grape Acreage Report yet, but we have 2009’s to go by. That year, there were more than 36,000 acres (bearing and non-bearing) of Pinot Noir reported. Again, that put Pinot #4 on the list of most widely planted red varieties (after Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot). Most of it was right where you’d expect: Sonoma County, where extensive plantings have gone into the Petaluma Gap region. Monterey County, too, has exploded in Pinot acreage, as has Santa Barbara County, Mendocino County and Napa, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties. There are now 34 California counties growing Pinot, more than half the state’s total of 58.
We all know that Pinot Noir is hugely popular. What the precise role of Sideways was will be debated forever: Was Pinot happening anyway? Yes. Did Sideways help? Yes. Would Pinot be where it is today without Sideways? Irrelevant. The real question is, is there a tipping point to how much Pinot Noir California can grow before there’s an oversupply, the way we’ve seen happen with other grapes, like Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, forcing prices to fall?
Overplanting is one potential problem Pinot Noir faces. The other is pricing. Of all varieties, Pinot is the most difficult to produce inexpensively, which is why it is, on average, the costliest California wine, as determined by its weighted average dollars per ton. Pinot’s WADPT in 2010 was $1,641. No other major grape variety is that high. (Several rare varieties, such as Aleatico, Lemberger and Pinot Meunier, report higher numbers, but those must be based on extremely small deals between growers and buyers, and obviously do not reflect on the underlying value of those varieties, which at any rate are rarely bottled.) This means that Pinot Noir will always be an expensive wine, which is not a good thing when Americans continue to tighten their belts and look for values.
So we’re going to have to keep a close eye on the future of the Pinot Noir market, and that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking producers at the World of Pinot Noir.