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Global wine glut compounds headaches for struggling California vineyards

Labeling cheap imports as domestic product is a ‘dirty secret’

By Louis Sahagún, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 20, 2024, 5:58am
3 Photos
Lodi&rsquo;s iconic arch was built in 1907 as a symbol of agricultural and commercial growth which seems to counter what is happening in the region with the oversupply of wine grapes on March 26, 2024, in Lodi, California.
Lodi’s iconic arch was built in 1907 as a symbol of agricultural and commercial growth which seems to counter what is happening in the region with the oversupply of wine grapes on March 26, 2024, in Lodi, California. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

LODI, Calif. — Times are getting increasingly tough for many of California’s wine grape growers.

Wine-souring smoke from wildfires, grape-shriveling drought and global warming have all been playing an increasingly detrimental role in state vineyards for at least the last decade.

But those aren’t the only headaches. More recently, a tectonic shift in generational drinking habits has led to a global glut of wine.

Now, California growers find themselves having to compete with bargain-basement wine prices from overseas growers eager to rid themselves of aging supplies.

“What’s aggravating is that we have grapes that didn’t get picked or sold while the biggest wineries in the state are bringing in cheap bulk wine from overseas,” Lodi Winegrape Commissioner Stuart Spencer lamented.

Here in the heart of San Joaquin County’s prized wine country, thousands of tons of unpicked grapes cling to abandoned vines, and piles of gnarled wood and wire mark vast, uprooted vineyards.

Much of the reason for this, according to Spencer, is that giant California-based wineries have been increasing their purchases of cheap foreign bulk wine, then blending it with vintages produced here.

Under Federal Tax & Trade Bureau regulations, the resulting blend can be labeled “American wine” if it contains no more than 25 percent foreign wine.

While the blending of foreign wine with California wine is nothing new, few growers have complained publicly for fear of losing business from large winemakers. Now, however, as the plight of vineyard owners grows, Spencer and others are speaking openly about it.

In March, Spencer shocked the industry by publishing a report titled “Imported foreign bulk wine: the dirty secret no one in California wine is talking about.”

“I felt I had to say something about a disturbing aspect of our industry that has been left out of the conversation,” Spencer said.

It is a searing criticism of the industry that has made Spencer, 54, something of a local hero at a time when many wine grape growers are grappling with the impacts of massive wildfires, unprecedented drought, rising labor and equipment costs, COVID-19 mandates and a brutal demographic disconnect around the world that has slowed the market for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Merlot.

Wine, once the height of boomer culture and conspicuous consumption, has lost its cool among young, more frugal and health-conscious potential customers, many of whom prefer cannabis over Cabernet, experts say. In France, the government is spending more than $200 million to destroy excess wine amid plummeting demand. In Australia, vineyards have been forced to stockpile two years’ worth of production due to lack of buyers.

Now, growers in Lodi — the most diverse wine-growing region in the U.S., with 125 varieties in production — and across much of the state are being urged by industry representatives to remove tens of thousands of acres of vineyards to balance supply and demand.

Compounding all the other anxieties is the increasing importation of cheap bulk wine from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and Canada by wineries including E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands and Delicato Family Wines, according to Spencer.

This spring, as green shoots are emerging from the vines, the 700 grape growers represented by Spencer’s commission have realized that they have lost control of their fate due to global market forces and the increasingly harmful effects of global warming.

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“We’ve been told that potentially 400,000 tons of grapes were left on the vine last harvest,” Spencer wrote in his report. “Growers have been told they need to remove thousands of vineyard acres to balance supply with demand.

“But no one is mentioning that California’s largest grape buyers also imported the equivalent of 400,000 tons of grapes in 2022,” Spencer wrote. “This situation is exacerbated by a global oversupply of wine which allows wineries to source incredibly cheap foreign bulk wine to reduce their costs of goods sold.”

After reading Spencer’s report, some local growers said they stood up from their kitchen tables and cheered. Others worried about the consequences.

“He’s saying things that could get us blacklisted,” said Garret Schaefer, whose family has been growing grapes here since the late 1800s. “And we can’t afford to get blacklisted because we have too much wine to sell.”

The report points out that “the importation of foreign bulk wine began in the late 1990s when a rapidly growing wine market looked overseas to fill demand.”

The trend slowed significantly in the early 2000s as California vineyard plantings exceeded demand, according to Spencer. However, it began to pick back up around 2006 and has grown steadily ever since.

Natalie Collins — director of the California Association of Grape Growers, an advocacy group — noted that “importing foreign bulk wine isn’t new.”

“But Stuart has done a great job of calling widespread attention to a worsening local dilemma: How can we compete when the big wineries can buy bulk wine from Canada, for example, for as low as a buck a gallon?”

The big question now is whether the report will blossom into something lasting and beneficial at a time when each week, it seems, more growers have decided to pull out vines, put land up for sale, or risk a fresh start with an alternative crop such as almonds, walnuts or pistachios.

Removing vineyards has become an expensive proposition. Under new San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Regulations, growers with more than 100 acres can no longer burn their uprooted vineyards.

Now, they must hire crews to first extract wires embedded in their vines, then use contractors with heavy machinery to pile them up. The waste is later dumped into a crop grinder or an air curtain burner — an insulated box equipped with a diesel-powered fan that produces less smoke and particulate matter than traditional open burning.

Not removing an untended vineyard in a timely fashion renders it vulnerable to pests and disease that can leapfrog onto vines owned by nearby farmers.