Grape Buyers Offer Insights for Growers

At annual event to discuss market for Clarksburg fruit, growers urged to fight for label status

by Ted Rieger
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Sonoma County winemaker Ondine Chattan (left), Vinum Cellars winemaker Richard Bruno, grape broker Johnny Leonardo of Ciatti Global Wine & Grape Brokers; and panel moderator and Clarksburg grower Phil Ogilvie with Wilson Vineyards. (Photo: Ted Rieger).

Clarksburg, Calif.—Clarksburg grape growers heard market observations and insights from knowledgeable industry grape buyers during the 32nd annual Clarksburg Grape Day held March 6. Sponsored by the Clarksburg Wine Growers & Vintners Association (CWGVA) and U.C. Cooperative Extension for Sacramento County, the meeting was held at the Old Sugar Mill winery and tasting room complex.

The Clarksburg American Viticultural Area (AVA) includes parts of Sacramento, Solano and Yolo Counties in the northern Delta region along the Sacramento River. Located within California Grape Crush District 17, the Clarksburg area encompasses more than 22,000 acres of vineyards of more than 35 grape varieties. Based on California Grape Crush Report figures, the 2017 District 17 crush totaled 159,372 tons, with 109,538 tons of white wine varieties and 48,834 tons of red wine varieties.

A panel composed of two winemakers and one grape broker, was organized by CWGVA board treasurer Phil Ogilvie, a grower with Wilson Vineyards and co-owner of Muddy Boot Wines. “If we’re going to be smart marketers, we have to listen to the grape buyers,” Ogilvie said while introducing the panel. “We know our fruit is great, but we want to know what people outside our AVA have to say.”

Ogilvie asked the panelists to address three topics: the perception of Clarksburg, the need and demand for Clarksburg wine grapes, and the future market prospects for Clarksburg grapes.

Perceptions of Clarksburg
Ondine Chattan, longtime Sonoma County winemaker and former director of winemaking at Geyser Peak Winery has been buying Clarksburg fruit for 15 years. “I’m based in Sonoma, and I feel Clarksburg growers are similar to Sonoma growers, with a focus on quality and a similar ethos,” she said.

Chattan added Clarksburg is in a position similar to other California AVAs that produce quality fruit but do not always get recognition on the label, such as Suisun Valley, Lake County, Dunnigan Hills and Green Valley in Sonoma County.

Based on her experience at a larger production winey, she has sourced Clarksburg grapes for two primary uses — in Sonoma appellation wines as a blending component for its good quality at a lower price, and in California appellation wines. “I think the bulk of your fruit is heading westward to coastal wineries, and that fact can be leveraged for better prices and to get Clarksburg on the label, but I think it’s also important to maintain a supply for blending and California programs,” Chattan said.

Richard Bruno, owner and winemaker for Vinum Cellars based in Napa, has produced and bottled Clarksburg appellation labelled Chenin Blanc since establishing his winery in 1997. He said growers have done a good job growing the right varieties that are well-suited to the area’s climate and soil. “White wine grapes grow well in this area, receiving the cooling influence from the Bay, Delta climate,” he said. “This is important for wine chemistry to maintain the natural acidity that comes in these grapes.”

The climate also produces red wines with good acidity and balance, and this is a selling point in the marketplace, Bruno said. “The two varieties that stand out here are Chenin Blanc for its breathtaking acidity, and Petite Sirah, grown in a cool climate that allows you to hang the grapes longer which resolves the green components while providing a more complex wine.”

Bruno urged the audience: “You should be standing up for who you are. You need to fight to get your special AVA on the wine label.”

He said he believes smaller wine producers would be more willing to make Clarksburg labelled wines, and growers could negotiate a label designation in their grape buying contracts.

Johnny Leonardo, a grape broker with Ciatti Global Wine & Grape Brokers since 2004, sees requests from buyers who want Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Petite Sirah from the Clarksburg region. “The buyer perception is that Clarksburg is the high-end of the northern interior, and we’ve had tastings in our office, so they understand about the quality,” he said.

However, he added: “A lot of times Clarksburg gets grouped in with Lodi, or grouped in with other Central Valley fruit for a California appellation program. On the plus side, this provides more options for sales, but a California program may not pay as well, and a Clarksburg program usually has a higher price.”

Leonardo said Pinot Noir is an important pathway for Clarksburg growers as a bridge to coastal buyers who have not previously sourced it from the interior. “Once they try Clarksburg Pinot, they may increase their program and purchases, and now is a real important time, because prices for Pinot Noir have gone up everywhere,” he said. “You’re on the right path with your varietal mix and with market demand. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc — those are varieties wineries want, and you have the quality with those varieties.” ‘

Leonardo said Clarksburg fruit is fairly priced based on the current market, but believes Pinot Noir provides more opportunity for higher prices than other varieties. According to the final 2017 wine grape report, District 17 Chenin Blanc fetched an average of $450 per ton and the average price for Pinot Gris was $646. Of popular red varieties, Pinot Noir was $786, Cabernet Sauvignon, $840; Cabernet Franc, $929 and Petite Sirah was at $837 per ton.

Future opportunities
Bruno advised growers to be more experimental in their vineyards and look into using the research and development (R&D) tax credit for businesses to conduct vineyard trials with new clones, different varieties, or using different management practices. “Take a small part of your vineyard and start farming it organically or certified sustainable,” he said. “You can be ahead of the curve and be ready to transition more acreage to be prepared for future opportunities.”

Chattan agreed, saying, “Organic and sustainable are not going away, and those are value adds to your product.”

Bruno also suggested partnering with a winery, or winemaker, who can get retailers or restaurants to carry a new brand or a unique house brand that showcases Clarksburg appellation wine. He suggested reaching out to Sacramento restaurants that promote “Farm to Fork” products to put more local Clarksburg wines on their wine lists.

“Take a small risk. Invest in a brand by offering an up and coming winemaker some fruit to experiment with,” he said. “You may be able to use the R&D tax credit, and you may also develop a customer for life, and help put Clarksburg on the map.”

He recounted how when he was starting his own winery how Ken Wilson with Wilson Vineyards sold him a half ton of Clarksburg Chenin Blanc, and it has become one of Vinum Cellar’s flagship products.

Chattan also suggested Clarksburg growers can pursue multiple avenues to achieve desired quality and to market to different price points. “Use mechanization in a responsible way that can be tailored to the buyer’s needs,” she said. “Work with wine producers and see how quality in the vineyard and new practices are translated into the wine.”

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