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California Faces Vine Shortage

With the economy expanding, growers are trying to plant again, but a lack of vines could mean higher priced wines

Lynn Alley
Posted: April 3, 2012

Grapegrowers all over California are rushing to plant new vines. The only trouble is that there aren't any. Major vine nurseries have been caught unprepared for the dramatic increase in demand in recent months.

“I’ve done this for 12 years and I’ve never seen the demand to this degree," said Michael Monette, north coast and out-of-state representative for Sunridge Nurseries, one of the state’s largest vine nurseries. "Depletion of inventory and two lackluster crops, coupled with increasing wine consumption, has led to a run on planting. I’m already selling through 2013 and 2014.”

California's last major wave of vineyard planting was in the 1990s. With a global oversupply of wine in the past decade, there wasn't a need for more vineyards. And when the recession hit, winery owners were busy selling excess inventory. Grape prices plummeted. With money tight, vineyard owners delayed replanting, even in vineyards where the plants were past their prime production years.

But now the excess is gone and wineries need more grapes. Large Central Valley and Central Coast grapegrowers began placing large vine orders last summer and fall. One big producer asked Sunridge for 1.2 million vines in August. According to Monette, Cabernet Sauvignon, most clones of Pinot Noir, and so-called red blenders—Petit Verdot, Malbec, Petite Sirah—are no longer available from the state’s major vine nurseries.

“There aren’t any vines around. We put in an order for about 300 acres worth of plantings six weeks ago and had we waited just one more week, we wouldn’t have been able to get anything," said Jason Smith, owner of Paraiso Vineyards and grower chair for Monterey County Vintners and Growers. "We first tried our regular suppliers and they were already sold out. No one can get any Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet.”

Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, reports that Napa Valley is seeing a wave of replanting. Asked about the vine shortage, Putnam said, “For us, Cabernet is the big one. That’s the one I hear most about, but then that’s what we grow here.”

Steve Maniaci, general manager of Sunridge, said that in addition to red grape varieties, most nurseries are also sold out of the more popular clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio and are running low on Sauvignon Blanc Musqué, a popular clone of Sauvignon Blanc used in blends. Maniaci is also concerned about rootstocks—most of the state’s popular rootstocks are also gone. He added that the shortage not only affects California wineries, but those in Oregon and Washington, which are also experiencing a wave of new plantings.

Maniaci worries that growers who can't get the vines they want might be tempted to take chances with the health of their vineyards. “When we have a high demand market like this, growers will compromise and harvest budwood [from their own or neighboring vineyards] that they think is safe," said Maniaci. "We encourage them to test it first to make sure it is virus-free so they don’t inadvertently spread disease in the vineyard.”

How does the current vine shortage affect consumers? “At least insofar as the Napa Valley is concerned, we’ve already seen rising prices due to short vintages in 2010 and 2011," said Michael Honig, owner of Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford. "Now with demand picking up and new vines in short supply, prices are also going up.”

“We’re not likely to see changes due to the vine shortage for another two or three years, but the basic laws of supply and demand apply," Honig added. "Prices will go up. Are people still gonna be able to buy California wines? Yes. But instead of 'two buck chuck,' it’ll more likely be 'five buck chuck.'"

Doug Jeffirs
Pluto (the old one) —  April 5, 2012 6:21pm ET
Try raising prices 250%.

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