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[whitespace] Success sprouts a premium-grape shortage

By Bob Johnson

IF PAULA COLE lived in Sonoma County, rather than singing about cowboys, her lyrical lament might well be: "Where have all the wine grapes gone?" Even though the 1998 harvest was the second largest on record in the Sonoma/Marin region, according to a preliminary report issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, there is a critical shortage of quality wine grapes in the county.

One consequence of the shortage is likely to hit consumers where it hurts the most: in their wallets.

Some 132,715 tons of grapes were harvested in Sonoma County last fall. That's about 5,000 more tons than the 1996 crush produced, but well under 1997's record 187,725-ton yield. And with most 1997 white wines now on the market and selling briskly, wineries, distributors, and retailers are bracing for an extremely tight market once the more limited 1998 wines have evolved sufficiently to bottle and release.

"We're experiencing a 30 percent growth trend over last year," says George Rose, public relations director for Clos du Bois Winery. "We're convinced that consumers are now recognizing the connection [between] Sonoma County-appellation wines and quality."

What has spawned the upsurge of interest in local wines? Rick Theis, until recently the executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, says the region's reputation has been slowly building over the past decade and a half.

"Fifteen years ago, people wouldn't have thought about looking for a Sonoma County wine first," Theis says. "But by educating the public about how the county produces more award-winning wines than any other region in California each year, our reputation has spread."

Toss in marketing efforts by the county's association of wineries, along with national radio and TV campaigns by Clos du Bois and Gallo that put the Sonoma County image in the spotlight, and a case could be made that local wines now enjoy star status similar to that of their liquid cousins from Napa Valley.

Besides consumer demand, another factor is fueling the county's grape shortage: big business. "A few very large wineries are buying as much fruit as possible, leaving everyone else to fight for what they can get," observes Rod Berglund, winemaker for Joseph Swan Vineyards.

"The demand seems to be pretty much across the board," Berglund adds. "Russian River Valley and coastal pinot noir is virtually unavailable on the open market at any price. Ditto for zinfandel--any appellation, and especially old vine. Petite sirah and other once-common varietals are almost gone and in great demand. Chardonnay continues to be strong. And newer varietals--such as syrah, pinot gris, and viognier--are already at ridiculous [high price] levels."

Adds Berglund: "In some cases we may be near the [pricing] limit, but in the case of Russian River pinot, for instance, it seems as if the bidding has only begun."

Theis agrees. Although some mega-wineries may deplete supplies by purchasing a great deal of the available fruit, Theis says, it is the consumer who ultimately determines the price of a wine. "People desire things--be it wine or anything else--that are of extremely high quality and hard to get," he says. "It's just human nature, and it's also the nature of the wine business. I've talked to retailers who say that consumer demand for Sonoma County pinot noir is such that wineries could charge whatever they want for it. Supply and demand is what sets the [price] bar, and as long as the economy stays strong, that bar is going to go higher."

Adding to the demand for local grapes is the discovery by winemakers from outside the county's borders that, as Berglund puts it, "a little bit of Sonoma County fruit can go a long way toward improving an otherwise insipid blend."

OTHER FACTORS include grape growers who decide to become winemakers, thus cutting off or severely limiting supplies to long-established winery clients; the evolving palates of U.S. wine drinkers; and a surge in exports.

"American consumers are moving upscale to high-end varietal wines," says industry analyst Jon Fredrikson. "They're shifting their preferences away from many white and blush jug wines, [the sales of which] declined in food stores last year."

As for worldwide demand for U.S. wines, preliminary numbers from the Department of Commerce put the value of American vino exports--90 percent of which come from California--in 1998 at $537 million, a 26 percent increase over 1997. And a growing percentage of California exports hail from Sonoma County.

What is it that makes these homegrown grapes and wines so sought-after?

Berglund explains it this way: "Grapes from Sonoma County have an uncommon depth of flavor, excellent natural balance, and tremendous diversity, while still retaining a sense of place. There is, in this county, some place that will grow virtually every varietal, and it can be as good as almost anywhere else it is grown, at least in the New World."

Theis concurs. "In many ways, we've become the victims of our own success," he says of the county's premium-wine grape shortage.

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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