Friday, August 12, 2011

Sweet Talk About Sweet Wine

Grape grower Terri Harvey tends lamb on the grill
Farmers fret - about the weather, the market, the pests, the unpredictable tastes of consumers. The wonder is that this tension so rarely shows itself in frustration and anger. On the contrary, farmers aren't just stoic, they're steadily charming and gracious regardless of whether business is bright or dark, by and large. Their glasses are perpetually half full.

They were last night, at least, when members of the Amador County Grape Growers Association met beside a quiet pond on the bucolic grounds of the Amador Flower Farm for their annual potluck and barbecue. For good eating and plenty of good wine, there's nothing quite like a gathering of grape growers to bring it all together.

After cuts of hog and lamb from the county fair's livestock auction were devoured, but before the dessert table of berry pies and brownies got raided, the growers paused to hear a few talks concerning the state of the trade. Fiddletown grower Dick Martella moderated the session, recalling at the outset that "some of us were hit pretty hard" by a spring freeze, then wrapping up the evening by noting that the ripening of grapes is running a month later than usual, raising the possibility that fall rains will move in before all the fruit is off the vines. "We're going to need all of October and half of November probably," he said of the forthcoming harvest, sounding not at all fretful, even if he is. Overall, however, he was downright upbeat. The extent of damage from the spring freeze, for one, won't fully be known until the fruit is brought in. And then there's the strength of the American wine trade, despite the shakiness of much of the rest of the economy. The wine market in the U.S. grew by between six percent and eight percent the past year, with exports particularly impressive, up 16 percent to 18 percent, said Martella.

Another speaker, Erica Moyer, a partner in Turrentine Brokerage of Novato, which deals in the buying and selling of wine in bulk - wines without a retail commitment - drew an even sunnier picture for Amador County growers. Of all the reasons she outlined for optimism - a weak dollar that encourages exports of California wine while discouraging imports, two successive years of relatively light crops that mean higher prices for dwindling inventories - her most surprising observation concerned a sharp rise in winemaker demand for zinfandel, the backbone of Amador County's wine industry.

But Moyer wasn't talking so much of zinfandel bottled as a varietal but of zinfandel as the base for proprietary blends in the hot $10-to-$15 price niche. These wines are meant for everyday quaffing, and they're generally made somewhat sweet, a style with which American consumers are quickly becoming more comfortable. "Proprietary blends are coming back, and zinfandel is the base for that product," said Moyer. "We didn't see this coming. For growers, this is the time to take advantage of it...I wish you had more grapes on the vine."

So, no doubt, do the growers, but they showed no signs of anguish over the matter as the party broke up and they ambled toward their vehicles.


  1. Well there you have it! The SWEET crusade continues.

  2. zinfandel is hot on the bulk market....unfortunately there are hardly any shenandoah valley grapes to fill the insatiable market demand for it