Writing from the edge of the Russian River in Sonoma County
The wine industry in California was warned last year to start making changes and adjust to lower demand and sales and it failed to do so. It’s no surprise then that reports from a growers’ conference and from the prospective of financial risk and investment have no good news.
Tough Year Gets Tougher
The Silicon Valley Bank released its annual and well-respected 2024 State of the Wine Industry Report reflecting the issues of the California wine industry from a fiscal point of view while the Allied Grape Growers presentation reflected trouble in the vineyards; the industry is facing dire sales, overproduction, changing market dynamics and a worrying lack of interest from young adults.
I’ve interfaced some facts and thoughts from the SVB report into the remarks from the AGG that and show them in italics.
The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium delivered another magnum of bad news in January to the 12,000 grape growers and other industry members in attendance. In 2020, Jeff Bitter, president of Allied Grape Growers, told his constituents that California has too many grapevines, and they needed to rip out 30,000 acres. Wine sales have dropped since then, and this year he called for even more. Bitter said California now needs to remove a total of 50,000 acres.
“I’m making calls to growers saying, you’re growing a variety that is out of favor with the market,” Bitter said.
Overproduction leads to an excess of inventory and price reductions for out-of-favor brands—things need to shift. “I expect marginal producers to fall by the wayside,” says SVB VP Rob McMillan. “It’s how we’ll get demand and supply back in balance.”
California grape growers aren’t listening and continue to plant more red grapes – but California already has more Cab than it can sell. The 2023 vintage might turn out to be one of the great ones, and yet many uncontracted vineyards ended up not even being harvested because no wineries wanted to buy the grapes.
“Three or four years ago, everybody wanted to rush into rosés,” said Azur Associates managing director Danny Brager. “The overall rosé market is in decline right now. When you go into stores, there’s just too much pink on the shelves.”
Wine did especially poorly in restaurants. Wine sales were down 10 percent in restaurants and bars. Brager said that one reason has been a shift in how Americans eat. There are now 8400 fewer fine-dining restaurants in the US than pre-pandemic. They have been replaced by 10,000 new fast-casual restaurants that may sell wine, but are unlikely to take it seriously.
McMillan hopes that “we recapture the notion that if you are going to drink, wine is a better beverage than other categories,” he says. “That’s a message the wine industry has lost. People forget we’re largely a family-made industry. We’re an industry of agriculture, history and culture—we have a space in the ecosphere.”
If you are a fan of old-vine Zinfandel, (and you know I am) it might hurt your heart to hear that Bitter stood up and told growers to tear out those vines, both from Lodi, which has the largest concentration of old Zin vines, and from Sonoma County, where those wines often sell for a premium.
“They require hand picking instead of by machine. There are viticultural challenges and economic challenges. If the market doesn’t return a premium for that, then that translates into less vineyards.”
The big takeaway: It’s time for the wine industry to adjust to changing consumer preferences and the current realities of the supply chain. “We all will have to adapt,” he concludes. “Hope is not a strategy.”
What all of this turmoil means for you and me is that there will soon be a lot of really good red wine in the market place – possibly older vintage wines that need to make room for the current over stocks and at value pricing and in new red blends that didn’t exist yesterday.
I suggest being a bit cautious about what you buy especially if you can’t taste it. Maybe don’t jump on the first offers you see and sit back and wait a bit to see what develops.
And now, if you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to make friends with your local wine shop manager. Let he/she know you’re aware of the issues in the California wine industry and you’d appreciate getting a heads up as deals develop.
My thoughts regards restaurant wine lists: if you’re dining out during the next few months in a spot with a decent wine list, now’s the time to ask a person with knowledge of that list what wines might be at a “featured” price for the evening or are there discounted prices on certain nights – the worst they can say is no.
Low Key Approach From a High Profile Writer
Ray Isle is one of the wine world’s foremost writers and speakers. He has been writing about wine, spirits and cocktails for 20 years. Isle is the executive wine editor at Food & Wine magazine and the wine and spirits editor for Travel + Leisure. He writes Food & Wine‘s monthly “Bottle Service” column and contributes regular print and online features about wine, spirits and wine-related travel to both brands.
Following is an interview I edited that appeared in the Wine Industry Review
You write for both wine and travel publications. How are those readerships different? Where do they intersect?
I write for two “and” magazines (or media brands), in a sense. Food & Wine is a culinary magazine with a substantial wine focus; Travel + Leisure is a travel magazine with a hefty dose of leisure (which, I guess, wine falls into). The readerships are different but wine intersects with both of those, regularly and interestingly.
It’s probably fair to say that for both, I write primarily for the wine curious rather than the wine expert.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
That wine is a lot of fun, in addition to everything else it is. It doesn’t have to be pretentious, or daunting. And if someone’s making you feel that it is, they’re the wrong person to listen to.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?
I don’t score wines, because I think scores are innately reductive, at least for any wine that’s worth a score. I don’t usually taste blind, because I think the knowledge of who/how/why/where is important to understanding a wine. And I’m lucky to have the freedom to work that way.
Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?
I don’t consider myself an “influencer” as a job, or career — at least as the word has come to mean. I do think of myself as being a wine writer rather than a wine critic, though.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
Most memorable was a 1984 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet, when I was first getting into wine. Or, more accurately, it was the first wine that lit up my mind and made me think, “Holy crap, this is amazing.”
It was a 1978 California Cabernet for me but I have forgotten the label
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
For pairings, potato chips and Champagne are at the top of the heap.
And whose been telling you that for years???
Wine Spectator 2023 Wine Value of the Year
Our editors’ top pick from the best-priced wines released in 2023
Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2021
91 points | $28 | 203,000 cases made
Growing your own grapes is always a recipe for controlling quality and prices, and Jackson Family Wines is among Sonoma County’s most significant vineyard landholders. Winemaker Craig McAllister credits the wine’s quality and growth partly to California vintners’ freedom to blend across AVAs, citing the vastness of the Sonoma Coast appellation, which includes the Russian River Valley and Los Carneros sub regions.
“The Russian River component is just shy of 33 percent of the blend,” says McAllister about the Sonoma Coast bottling. “Historically, those vineyards have been a major component, sometimes up to 50 percent or 60 percent, but as new coastal vineyard plantings have increased, that percentage has come down.” Estate vineyards near Annapolis in the northern reaches of the Sonoma Coast and the Petaluma Gap area at the southern end help anchor the 2021 bottling, with additional grapes from contracted growers. “We’re lucky to have vineyards throughout the county, because they offer a spice rack of different flavors, aromas and textures.”
Add the accelerant of a great vintage and you have a winning formula for a large-volume, value-priced wine.
With its 200,000-plus case production, La Crema’s Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2021 makes a compelling case for California Pinot at scale. Although McAllister makes plenty of higher-priced, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, he enjoys making broad AVA blends. “One of the beauties of making wine at a scale like this is you’re not limited to the specific terroir of a single vineyard,” he says. “In some cases, it’s more fun to put together, because we have a lot to play with.”
Oh is there a question from Greg Baise in the back of the room…yes of course I know the wine maker, we met at an unrelated birthday party several years ago and then I featured him in a “Woody’s Whine”.
Half a Glass
McDonalds Brings the Double Big Mac Back (Why?)
McDonald’s began offering a Double Big Mac at participating restaurants nationwide on Jan. 24 for a limited time. The Double Big Mac includes four beef patties and additional sauce topped with the product’s signature pickles, shredded lettuce, chopped onions and slice of (their words) American cheese sandwiched between a sesame seed bun.
Notably, the company is also working on updating its traditional burgers, featuring changes such as softer buns and more sauce, as well as changes to the cooking process. The company said these updates will yield its “best burgers ever” and they’re expected to be deployed systemwide by the end of 2026.
“We’ve identified an unmet customer need with a significant opportunity to drive future growth in beef and that is the large beef burger customer – a desire for larger, high quality burgers that fill you up and are delivered in a convenient and affordable way,” Jo Sempels, president for international developmental licensed markets, said (awkwardly) during investor day.
I must say that no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find a “good” photo of the sandwich
Nation’s Restaurant News
Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc California 2022
91 points • $12 • 109,000 cases made
Aromatic, juicy and fragrant, with Key lime pie, tangerine, lime sherbet, fresh-cut green apple and fresh-grated ginger all singing on a mouthwatering frame. Ends with a long, expressive finish. Drink now. From California.
This is one of our “house wines”.
That’s My Whine and I could me wrong…
Woody Mosgers, cooks, custom caters, writes, drinks, matches wine and food and offers wine country tour information and planning in Santa Rosa Sonoma, CA.