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Growers are Grrreat!

by David on January 8, 2007

When I wrote the post called “Ain’t Nothin’ Simple,” it occurred to me that I could be stabbing myself in the foot by referring to one of our growers. As long as I’ve been talking to people about wine, I’ve had the clear impression than most consumers think that buying grapes rather than growing them is a bad thing, a compromise. And when you think about it, it kind of makes sense because it implies less control.

Among producers, you’ll find every attitude. Some think that the only way to have absolute control is to own all of their vineyards. These are, of necessity, mostly small producers. Some think that if you both grow and buy grapes you spread yourself too thin and won’t do either very well so they buy everything.

From a practical standpoint, most of us, large and small, do both.

The last time I heard this statistic, and it’s probably out of date because growers are becoming winemakers on almost a daily basis, about 1/3 of the vineyard property in Napa Valley is owned by growers who prefer to sell their grapes rather than produce wine.

The thing is, if you’re not willing to buy grapes you can miss out on a whole lot of fun. Some growers own formidable vineyards we’d like to call our own and the next best thing is getting a long-term contract with them. And, contracts can be as general or detailed as the two parties involved agree to make them. Everything from shoot thinning, to yields to who decides when to harvest can be negotiated. And, once we find a really great grower, we do everything we reasonably can to keep him happy so he isn’t out looking for another buyer.

Prices, of course, are negotiable too, and it was reported that in 2005 one local grower was paid $26,500 per ton for his Cabernet! The norm for Napa Valley Cab is more like $5,000.00 to $7,500.00 according to Appellation America. This guy’s vineyard is so good that he needs a separate phone line to handle the bidding war! Enter into a war like that and you better be darned sure that you can recoup your costs…

Then there are these troublesome trends. Trendiness is completely incompatible with the nature of viticulture. If everyone suddenly decides they want to drink nothing but Gewurztraminer, it takes 3-4 years to bring a new vineyard into production, assuming we’ve got the land available for planting and after ordering and waiting for the plant material. And what if the trend is fleeting? So, we look for a good Gewurztraminer grower and let the bidding war begin!

And, of course, there are individuals who are completely obsessed with making great wine but don’t have the means to pay $200,000.00 per acre for a vineyard. Or winemakers whose vineyards are temporarily out of production due to disease, old age or whatever. The ones with high standards will seek out a grower with great care.

So next time you hear your tasting-room host refer to the grower, start asking questions: “Tell me about the grower.” “Where’s the vineyard?” “Valley floor or hillside?” “Does he make wine too?” “Do you buy all of his grapes?” You’ll have a fascinating conversation and realize that if you love the wine, then some gorgeous fruit went into it, whether winery-grown or purchased.

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