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The new Cali acreage report: Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry continue to rule

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The 2012 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses and the most noteworthy fact is that white winegrape acreage is down from 2011 while red winegrape acreage is up, but just barely: a mere 274 acres, about a tenth of one percent over 2011.

This actually continues the trend of the last ten years: acreage of both red and white varieties has remained nearly constant since 2003. To put this into perspective, in the ten years prior to that (1994-2003), white winegrape acreage increased, albeit only by about 5 percent, while red winegrape acreage during the same period soared, nearly doubling, from 142,000 acres in 1994 to 263,000 acres in 2003

What I make of this, in broad sweeping terms, is:

1.   White winegrape varieties have remained fairly constant in acreage for twenty years because growers know that consumers are buying pretty much as much white wine as they’re capable of.

2.   Growers planted a boatload of red varieties from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s because all the evidence pointed to increased consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular. Between 1995 and 2003, Cabernet acreage increased by 174%, a greater percentage than any other major red variety. (I think we also can assume that lots of white winegrape vines were budded over to reds.)

So why have the last ten years seen a virtual moratorium on new plantings? It’s puzzling. Maybe a closer look at the data will give some answers.

Of the red varieties, all of the following are down in acreage, since either last year or since 2003: Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache and Barbera. This suggests that growers believe these varieties don’t have a future (although individual wineries, of course, will continue to specialize in them).

These varieties are up since 2003: Cabernet Sauvignon (+12%), Petite Sirah (+103%), Pinot Noir (+89%) and Syrah (+27%). These are the varieties growers feel are likely to increase in consumption.

The only major white variety that significantly increased in acreage over the last ten years is–you guessed it–Pinot Gris. It’s up 380%, although the starting point was low. Pinot Gris now has 12,473 acres planted in the state, and is poised to overtake Sauvignon Blanc (14,911 acres, and dropping) as the #3 most widely-planted white variety, after Chardonnay and (sigh) lowly French Columbard.

The inescapable conclusion is that California growers are conservative. They plant what has been selling and what they believe will sell. Of course, the public doesn’t necessarily listen to growers; consumers, always a step ahead of the experts, drink what they want. Growers didn’t see Moscato coming, which is why plantings of the various Muscat varieties in California shot up from 2011 to 2012. Nor did growers see Pinot Noir coming before 2004’s Sideways. After that phenomenon, they planted it ferociously.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that California continues to be basically a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry state when it comes to red and white wine. And that’s a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.

  1. Regarding Barbera: In his excellent book from the early 1980′s, Italian Wine, Victor Hazan did not give Barbera much respect.

    It was something to drink on a cold, blustery night with a bubbling, savory stew. Other than that quick, passing assessment, he did not foresee Barbera ever breaking out of that role on the dinner table.

    Fast forward to today. Barbera has been updated, both in the vineyard and in the bottle, and also in wearing its modern robe of new oak, it is no longer that peppery, acidity beverage to simply wash down bold, flavorful food. Can that transformation occur in CA?

  2. John Lahart says:

    Interesting analysis.
    The cost of real estate vs the cost of making and selling wine and ultimately, the return on those investments is probably what drives what is planted.

    Some observations. The whole Sideways thing IMOP was and is blown way out of proportion. The film caught a trend that had already started and helped accelerate it. Pinot Noir was already in ascendancy driven more by its food friendly versatility and pleasant easy drinking yet sophisticated flavor profile. As usual the wine press picked up on the movie’s popularity and developed a handy dandy storyline. (unfortunately, that’s what the press does all too often). The truth is, many new terrors (micro climes) were already in the process of being “discovered” for this finicky grape.

    A great example is the story line developed by the wine press with the help of some of their wine making sources just recently. Syrah is “doomed” it won’t sell. According to your piece plantings are UP 27%!!!

    I am not sure that the plantings that you cite as being “down” are necessarily due to wine makers believing they have “no future.” The economy, over the last ten years probably plays more than a little role in any expansion. Small businesses, which is what many wineries are, are not going to expand given the uncertain economic future–new start ups are unlikely when banks are afraid to loan money.

    Interestingly, there is, I believe, a growth in experimentation. Wine makers are great experimenters, thankfully! I have recently tasted Trusseau wines from Cali and in fact, it is the warmer growing climes that may actually save this grape from extinction as growers in the Jura move to varietals like chardonnay (in order to make some money). Just as Argentina “helped” Malbec transform from a “blending grape” into one of the world’s great wine making varietals by itself.

    I am also seeing somewhat obscure varietals like Ribolla di Gialla and Rhone style blends being made. California may be Chocolate-Vanilla and strawberry in the long view but upon closer look there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

  3. The “other grapes”, and by that I mean the ones mentioned at the end of the post above and others that are not at all in the CA mainstream, may be increasing, but at levels that are still invisible to all but the geek squad. Nothing wrong with that. We could stand a lot more diversity here. But they are a trickle in the ocean and not the main story.

    What we have not seen yet spoken of is where the changes are taking place. As long as the big three rule the best vineyards, grapes like Zin and Grenache will find a hard time becoming growth industries.

    In my tastings, the one variety whose numbers seem to be growing exponentially is Grenache Blanc whose soaring aromas and fresh exuberance in the glass is earning it increasing respect, especially in vineyards south of San Francisco. I recently tasting a new on a Daou, the major new winery in the hill above Paso Robles, and found more depth and range than has been typical to date. If more folks make Gren Blanc with depth and finish (think Riesling or Voignier when made right), it may be closer to being the next big thing than Ribolla Gialla or Trousseau Gris, which did have a big run out here in CA under the name, Grey Riesling.

  4. Roger King says:

    It might actually have a lot more to do with what (truly independant) grower in right mind would plant at a cap ex of 25K an acre when wineries have been offering sub ROI pricing for those grapes they want to expand on for the last 10 years. Far too often the wine industry forgets growers are in business and have to generate profit to exist, expand et al. Napa pricing is only on 4% of CA vineyard production. Forget land pricing, it is the planting and annual cultural costs that take a grower to another more lucrative crop.

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