Holiday demand boosts outlook for state’s wines

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By: Steve Adler

When partygoers pop the corks on bottles of bubbly this New Year’s Eve, there’s more than a 50-50 chance the sparkling beverage in those bottles was fermented from California wine grapes.

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Last year, California’s share of the U.S. market for sparkling wine totaled 51 percent by volume. Foreign champagnes and sparkling wines took a 44 percent share, and other U.S. states held a 5 percent share, according to the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based winery association.

Though champagne and sparkling wines represent only a small proportion of overall U.S. wine sales, they are big sellers during the last quarter of the year, when 40 percent of the purchases of sparkling wines in the United States takes place.

That observation was confirmed by Jim Spinetta, an Amador County winegrape grower and winemaker.

“Sales of the sparkling wines increase during the holidays; in fact, it started before Thanksgiving. And (customers) weren’t just making purchases by the bottle, it is by the case. A lot of people come up here from the city to get their Christmas trees and their holiday wines at the same time,” he said.

Spinetta said that at his family’s vineyard in Plymouth, the primary emphasis is on winegrapes for traditional wines, but they do grow a chenin blanc from which they produce a “fun and yummy” wine that is a big seller, particularly during the holidays.

“Our fun and yummy wines have natural bubbles inside them. We have a chenin blanc that is our No. 1 fun and yummy wine. It has flavors of peaches and pears and tropical fruits, but it is a low alcohol, only 7.5 percent,” he said. “It is something they can have for the holidays, to toast at weddings, something for New Year’s Eve.”

Mendocino County winegrape grower Bill Pauli observed that sparkling wines are definitely up in sales and are going in the right direction.

Any grapes can be used to make sparkling wines, he said, but primarily it is chardonnay and pinot noir, with about a 95 percent share between those two varieties. Grapes for sparkling wines are picked at lower sugar and so generally they come off first. They usually get picked at anywhere from 18.5 brix to 19.5 brix, so they usually have a lower alcohol content. They generally have a little higher acidity as well. The crispness in sparkling wine is reflective of the acid, he said.

The decision on whether to make wine or sparkling wine from grapes can be made at any point in crop development up to the point where the grapes pass 19 brix, Pauli said, but many growers choose not to produce for sparkling wines because more work is involved at both the vineyard and winery.

“A lot of growers don’t like to grow grapes for champagne because the grapes have to be hand-picked and placed in boxes; you have to fuss with them. But you usually get a couple hundred dollars more per ton, so you have to decide whether or not it is worth it. Given the preference, a lot of growers would rather just grow grapes for making wine rather than champagne,” Pauli said.

Generally, sparkling wines are not sold in the year the grapes are harvested, he said.

“It is a two-step process at the winery. First the grapes are fermented, and then you take the sediment out and put in gas. So most of the time, there is at least a year between the time the grapes are harvested and when the wines are released,” Pauli said. “That is part of the reason why these wines are more expensive, because it does cost more to make them.”

Winegrape growers and winemakers from around the state hailed this year’s crop as one of the best vintages ever produced.

“We always talk about quality, but this year will go down as an exceptional harvest,” Pauli said. “In talking to some of the old-time winemakers that have been doing this for 40 to 50 years, they say this will go down as one of the top five harvests in terms of quality. The wines are going to be exceptional.”

Spinetta had a similar observation, noting that this was one of the earliest and shortest harvests in memory.

“Everything had such perfect conditions to get ripe. Usually, some varietals have to get ripe early, like the muscats, and then it goes into the chenin blancs and the zinfandels, and the last ones seem to be the petit syrah. But this year, everything got ripe together all at once. It was also the second-largest crop on record. So we were scrambling to finish it,” he said.

Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno, said the total winegrape crop estimate for 2013 equals that of 2012.

“We believe the winegrape crush could be 4 million tons again,” he said. “While the coastal regions are probably down in crop size, the interior regions are estimated to be as big as or bigger than in 2012. More new acreage has come into production this year, mostly in the interior.”

Total California wine shipments to U.S. markets grew from 169 million cases in 2002 to 208 million cases in 2012, up 28 percent by volume. But while overall shipments increased, the market share for California wine decreased, to about 58 percent in 2012 from 68 percent in 2002, according to the Wine Institute.

Foreign wine market share in the U.S. rose from 25 percent in 2002 to 34 percent in 2012. However, a portion of the foreign wine is bulk wine from Argentina and Chile being imported by California wineries to meet growing demand, analysts said. So while foreign wine market share has grown, many of the shipments are California winery sales.

Credit to the California Farm Bureau Federation for this article