By Kevin Hecteman Assistant Editor, Ag Alert
Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation
For Jeff Bitter, 2022 will be a year of recovery for California winegrape farmers—but not for the reasons one might think.
“It’s not so much a recovery from the pandemic as much as it is recovery from oversupply in the grape market,” Bitter said last week during the State of the Industry event at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento.
Bitter, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, noted that grape growers produced 4 million tons or more each year from 2016 to 2019, leading to a market glut. Short crops in 2020 and 2021 “brought us back into a balance situation,” he said.
Bitter sees the present situation as “stable with a chance of oversupply,” based on a short 2021 crop—with roughly 3.6 million tons of grapes crushed—and another year of modest plantings. Bitter forecast that 15,000 to 18,000 acres of vineyards would be planted in 2022—about the same amount as would be removed because of attrition. This is a good sign, he noted.
“That’s a healthy rate of planting for our industry to replace aging vineyards,” Bitter said of the acreage forecast. “I’m not worried about what we’re seeing here, with our three-year cycle of planting.”
The ideal total growing acreage, he added, would be about 550,000—give or take 10,000 acres—with 3.85 million tons of production.
Among the unknowns, he said, are California’s impending ban on agricultural burning, and the status of the drought.
As of Jan. 1, 2025, grape growers and others in the eight counties covered by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District will no longer be allowed to put old vines and trees to the torch. Bitter said that could spur growers who are thinking of pulling older vineyards to expedite the process and beat the deadline.
“The alternative to burning a vineyard, when you remove it, is basically to dismantle the vineyard first,” Bitter said. “You go back in and you unbuild everything you built 30 years ago, right? You take out all the metal; you cut everything down to small pieces so you can feed it through a chipper. There’s a way to even remove the wire from the wood and the chipping process, but all that’s very expensive compared to just lighting a match.”
Bitter added, “The bottom line is, growers will be incentivized, just because of ease and efficiency, to go ahead and perhaps get some vineyards out of the ground that are slated for removal anyway in the next few years.”
As for water, Bitter said he didn’t factor that into his projections because it’s impossible to predict the situation. Bitter said the critical time to apply water is at the end of winter, and some growers may have been reluctant to do this if they know they’ll be short of water later in the season.
“That’s why we saw, in a lot of cases, that short shoot growth and stunted growth,” Bitter said. “You didn’t have a good start; you didn’t have any deep soil moisture. If we don’t go into the spring with a reserve, that just compounds the problem even more. I definitely see the drought and the water concerns in the state continuing to plague all of agriculture, not just wine.”
Supply-chain issues also are top of mind for grape growers. Bitter said that, in addition to fertilizer and herbicides, winegrape growers are having trouble getting the basic building blocks of a vineyard.
“If you want to put a vineyard in, you can’t just call up your steel yard and say, ‘Hey, I want to order 40,000 stakes and have them delivered in a couple weeks,’” Bitter said. “It’s like, ‘OK, I’ll put you on the list, and I’ll call you in three months and see where it’s at—see if it’s on the boat yet.’”
In the meantime, all a would-be grape grower can do is wait.
“You’re going to want to develop a winegrape vineyard on steel stakes,” Bitter said. “There’s not really any good alternatives today.”
When the ship carrying the stakes does finally show up, the price tags on the precious metal are likely to be higher. Stakes used to run $3 to $4 per copy, depending on the stake’s height and width, Bitter said; now they run $5 and up.
“When you plant a vineyard, you’ve got hundreds of stakes per acre,” Bitter said. “It adds up pretty fast. You’re talking about hundreds of dollars per acre in additional cost if it just goes up a buck or two bucks.”
Boosting wine shipments, which Bitter cited as another means of easing oversupply concerns, may depend on demand. Speakers at the symposium noted the wine-drinking population is getting older.
“You have aging baby-boomer populations,” said Mario Zepponi of Santa Rosa-based Zepponi & Co., which specializes in mergers and acquisitions. “They’re drinking less wine, and they’re not being replaced by younger drinkers that have the same enthusiasm for wine.” Part of this is because of what Zepponi termed a “better-for-you” movement.
“Consumers want less alcohol, a better, more holistic natural product—lower sugar, lower carb, lower calories—and this explains the phenomenon of seltzers,” Zepponi said.
Danny Brager of Brager Beverage Alcohol Consulting pointed to a survey asking various age groups what adult beverage they’d most likely bring to a party. Nearly half of the 65-and-older respondents said they’d bring wine; that percentage declined steeply among younger drinkers, with only 15% of the 21-to-34 crowd saying they’d bring wine. Most of the rest of the younger demographic were more likely to bring beer, flavored malt beverages, hard seltzers or spirits.
“They’re choosing different drinks right across the entire beverage alcohol spectrum, depending on the occasion,” Brager said. “They’re seeking authentic brands with authentic stories, open to exploration and discovery of something new to them, and often will pursue some form of entertainment as part of the drinking experience.”
The question for winemakers, Brager said, is this: “How do we bring in younger, legal-drinking-age folks into the category, and build more onramps into the category so that they can start to enjoy wine?
“If we don’t keep bringing people into the category, we’re going to have trouble, potentially, down the road,” Brager said. “I’d encourage us to not just wait and not just hope for younger consumers to grow up into wine. If that happens, great. But if that doesn’t happen, that kind of spells trouble. It’s much better to be proactive.”
The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium was presented by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture and the California Association of Winegrape Growers.