Napa Grapegrowers Look to 2030

Speakers predict decrease in productive acreage and threats to vines in 'Ahead of the Curve' seminar

by Paul Franson
napa valley grapegrowers
Andy Walker (left) from the University of California, Davis, and John Ruel (right) of Trefethen Family Vineyards were among the speakers at the 'Ahead of the Curve' event held by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
Napa, Calif.—The Napa Valley Grapegrowers held their seventh Ahead of the Curve seminar last week, envisioning what the Napa Valley might be like in 2030.While 125 attendees were expected, the actual turnout exceeded 170, and the meeting had to be moved into a larger room at Silverado Resort in Napa.

Jon Ruel, the elected president of the Grapegrowers and chief operating officer of Trefethen Family Vineyards, provided an overview of what faces the audience of growers gathered at a critical time for most.

The vines they planted in the early 1990s in response to the phylloxera epidemic that attacked their previous AXR-1 rootstocks are nearing the end of their economic lives. Many growers have already started replanting and others plan on it.

Ruel pointed out that vineyard acreage in Napa County has been essentially flat at 45,000 acres since 2005. The county shifted from a 50/50 red/white balance to reds favoring whites 2 to 1. Meanwhile, the value of Cabernet grapes rose from $500 per ton in 1974 to $5,000 today. The Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and other reds of yesteryear largely were replaced by Cabernet.

Unproductive new vines represent less than 5% of vineyards, the lowest level ever according to Ruel, implying there is little chance for higher production soon. “We’re not planting enough. We will see a decrease in productive acreage at a time of increasing consumption.”

Threats to grapegrowing
The fight against pests continues, too. Growers have had to fight numerous threats: glassy-winged sharpshooters that carried Pierce’s disease, the light brown apple moth, the European grapevine moth and, more recently, the vine mealybug, a vector for leafroll virus.

If that weren’t enough, the recent identification of an apparently serious threat, red blotch, has challenged the nursery business to deliver adequate certified clean planting material at a time of heavy demand.

On top of that, climate change and water shortages could demand tough decisions about planting. “Other varieties might be more appropriate in some cases than Cabernet, “ noted Ruel. “It’s better to have high-quality Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot by the river than mediocre Cabernet that could compromise Napa Valley’s reputation for top wines.”

Likewise, there are some signs that phylloxera is adapting to the popular 101-14 rootstock. “We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket,” he said, recalling what happened with phylloxera in the 1980s.

Similar questions arise about vine spacing and trellises, including the possibility of automating some operations including harvesting, and better shading clusters from direct sunlight and heat.

Assuring ample labor, increasing government regulations and rapidly changing markets will also try growers who have to plant two or three decades in advance, while generational transitions face many family-owned wineries, the majority of wine companies in the valley.

Preserving the Ag Preserve
Finally is the desire to assure that Napa Valley is reserved for agriculture. Ruel noted that a recent survey of visitors found that the top draw in Napa Valley was the scenic beauty, not wine. Much of that beauty, however, arises from the vines that keep development from destroying the valley’s beauty as has happened in other grape-growing paradises of coastal California.

The 1968 Agricultural Preserve, which was extended until 2058 in a vote in 1990, is a fundamental reason for Napa Valley’s success along with its geography, geology and climate.

County assessor and former county supervisor John Tuteur and vintner-grower Warren Winiarski outlined how the agricultural preserve was created, expanded and enlarged.

Independent assessor Tony Correia, who grew up on a small farm near Fresno, covered today’s land values. Agriculture is very hot everywhere, and various interests are buying all the ag land they can. In the Central Valley, nut tree growers make so much money that they can outbid grape growers, and Correia reported that one owner even bulldozed a golf course to plant walnut trees; the same thing happened in Napa Valley, where vines are more valuable, when Chimney Rock replaced a golf course with vines.

Of late, the biggest buyers for vineyards have been cash-rich large private wine companies trying to assure grape supply (and driving up land prices).

In Napa County, prices range from $50,000 per acre in outlying areas to $300,000 in prime Rutherford and Oakville AVAs, with property having estate home sites listing for even higher.

Correia also reports that lifestyle buyers are back, too. “Napa Valley is an extraordinary spot in the world,” he noted, adding that many of these buyers pay cash.

Following Correia, master sommelier Bob Bath provided an insightful view from the buyer and consumer perspective. He pointed to the changes likely as Millennials replace Baby Boomers as the primary market. Millennials seek value and diversity more than tradition. This includes growth in blends and “other” varieties as trends not favoring Napa Valley’s iconic Cabernets.

Vines selected for resistance
The last speaker was professor Andy Walker, who is identifying and developing new rootstocks and grape varieties at UC Davis. He listed a litany of bad decisions in the past, from the wrong trellises to varieties and rootstocks unsuited for the areas they were planted in to not letting land lay fallow or rotate crops.

Walker said that the most important issue to face us—all of us, not just growers—will be water.

He also questioned defining wines by grape varieties, which created a focus on a few “international” varieties when other vines might be better choices in California’s warm climate. This also discourages the use of other varieties, though the increasing popularity of blended wines could be a godsend.

“We know diversity is good, and we search for it in clones. But we depend on clones because we’ve boxed ourselves into Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said. He suggested we might be better off with different or new varieties.

Part of Walker’s work is to identify and develop new varieties, but consumer resistance could make these improved vines unmarketable. He’s working on varieties that resist mildew and viruses, for example, but they won’t be “pure” Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay even if they taste like them. “Maybe we need to think of wines distinctive of an area like Napa, not a single variety.”

He gave an example: a vine that’s 97% vinifera and the rest Vitis arizonica that is resistant to Pierce’s disease. “The quality of the fruit and wine is excellent, too,” he claimed.

He addressed red blotch, noting that he’s seen it for years, but it was only recently identified. “It’s a member of an unusual virus family, a DNA rather than RNA virus, so is very persistent. “It’s spread by white fly and leafhoppers. We need to work together to beat it,” he said, adding that the best way would be wholesale removal and replanting in regions. Still, “We may be able to farm around it,” he noted. “It’s not as big a threat as leafroll viruses and the vine mealy bug.”

Walker also described his work to develop rootstock resistant to pests using native and sometimes obscure varieties of grapes other than vinifera, some from overseas. “We may have to change our attitudes about genetically modified vines,” he warned, though improved methods of identifying disease triggers and susceptibility speed up classic breeding. Some Middle Eastern varieties are natively resistant to phylloxera, too. And now grapes grown all over the world have to be dusted with sulfur or other fungicides to fight powdery or downy mildew, and pressure is growing against their use. “We could have grapes that don’t require fungicides. Those would be truly organic grapes.”

Growers discuss trends
Finally, a panel of growers and vintner-growers gave their views of the future.

Grower Jim Verhey noted that he had to reject three-fourths of recent nursery plantings because of red blotch infection. He also emphasized the importance of revenue per acre, not dollars per ton. He gets 6-8 tons per acre for high-quality Sauvignon Blanc in an area that would produce poor Cabernet, but he had to modify trellising and vine management to do so.

Jon-Mark Chappellet of Chappellet Winery stressed addressing potential climate change, not denying it. This includes analyzing carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides produced in growing, winemaking and distribution.

They joined Alex Ryan of Duckhorn and Bruce Phillips of Vine Hill Ranch in voicing concern about availability of labor. “The workforce is getting older,” noted Verhey. “And their kids aren’t coming into the vineyards.”

He said he feels that growers should be open to mechanization, at least pruners if not harvesters, though he noted that new mechanical harvesters could deliver excellent quality.

All panelists also emphasized the need to maintain the valley’s environment. “We invite people here to enjoy our beautiful valley and buy our expensive wines,” said Ryan. “We must accept and welcome them.”

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