GRAPE RESEARCHERS in California last week said they had discovered a missing link of sorts, that the parents of the king of red wine are an odd couple. . . .
Using DNA fingerprinting techniques, scientists discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon, the world's most famous red-wine grape, is a cross between Cabernet Franc, a red grape, and Sauvignon Blanc, a white one. . . .
I was actually surprised that researchers were so surprised. I've long thought that the two SauvignonsCabernet and Blancwere somehow related, although on reflection I'm not so sure where I came to that understanding. . . .
Not that it matters much, but for years I'd been led to believe that the two Sauvignons were connected. Both the red and white versions, when tasted in vineyard or after being vinified, have a most distinctive herbal to herbaceous edge. . . .
FOR RESEARCHERS AT the University of California, Davis, the surprise lies in the fact that for decadeseven centuriesviticulturists assumed that Cabernet Sauvignon, not Cabernet Franc, had been around forever, and that Franc was an offspring. . . .
That Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Franc and Sauvignon Blanc further astounded researchers, who said they had no idea the latter grape might somehow be related. . . .
This will undoubtedly come as good news to California Cabernet Franc lovers and producers, few that they may be, as this grape has enjoyed a minor groundswell of popularity of late. . . .
While the ranks of Cabernet Franc producers is growing, production in terms of acres planted and cases produced remains small. . . .
"There are a lot of limitations [for Franc]," admits John Skupny, of Lang & Reed Wine Co., a new wine company that is focusing on Cabernet Franc. "There's no accepted style definition, winemakers are trying to create different wines and for consumers it's not as easy to pronounce as Merlot" . . . .
ALL THE REPORTS you read about California wine prices skyrocketing are a bit exaggerated, according to one industry watchdog. . . .
Vic Motto, a Napa Valley-based wine accountant and consultant who closely tracks trends, says prices increased only 5 percent last year, about the same as the year before. . . .
Sales of ultrapremium winesthose that sell for $14 or moreincreased by an average of 7 percent a bottle, compared with a 13 percent increase the year before. . . .
The smallest-sized wineriesthose with 10,000 cases or fewerhad the biggest sales increases and highest per-case profits, which should not come as a big surprise since many of these brands are the hot-button names that everyone is clamoring for. . . .
In the infamous "Dead Zone," says Motto, are the wineries that produce 10,000 to 24,000 cases. They uniformly had weaker growth figures and actually saw their prices decline. . . .
MOTTO'S SURVEY COVERS some 200 wineries, representing 67 percent of premium wine sales. . . .
Word that export shipments of California wine reached record levels last year should not surprise either. Worldwide demand for California's finest wines remains bullish. . . .
The major issues facing California wineries, according to Motto, show some interesting trends as compared to just three years ago. . . .
The main concern this timenot an issue in the last pollis obtaining grapes and higher grape prices, followed by sales and marketing concerns and consumer-direct sales, which are illegal in many states. . . .
DEALING WITH DISTRIBUTORS, ranked as the second major concern last time, dropped to ninth this time. . . .
Also making the list for the first time were concerns about inventory shortages (naturally), imports (a surprise) andmaking the charts at the No. 10 spotestate taxes: The once-young industry is not only maturing but perhaps graying a bit as well. . . .
Concern over wines prices, an issue in both surveys, hung in at spot No. 5. . . .
While rising prices and wine scarcities are frustrating both producers and consumers, the wine industry often turns on a dime. . . .
Short grape crops and rising grape prices from 1994 through 1996 are as much to blame for the tight supplies as the high rolling economy and studies that are pro-wine and good health. . . .
BUT ABOUT ALL it takes to turn back the clock on prices is a stock market swoon, a mild recession and a couple of bumper grape crops to build up inventories and bring back deep discounting. . . .
Some California vintners, gazing deeply into their tea leaves, are predicting that 1997 will be a larger-than-normal crop, which would help ease prices by loosening supply and lowering grape prices. . . .
A big crop in Bordeaux too would do a lot to soften prices for wine futures and the market as a whole. . . .
Usually by the end of May winemakers can more accurately forecast the size of the grape crop, based on the grape set. . . .
Once they know that, they wait on the weather, and hope and pray the sun comes out and stays out. . . .
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