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What You Worry About If You Own A Vineyard

The life of a vineyard owner is not one that most of us would pity. Sure, we may not know exactly what's involved in raising grapes for other people to turn into wine, but how hard could it be? It's gotta be better than, say, punching holes at a cardboard box factory all day long, right?

It may not evoke much sympathy, but here's a bizarre example of what elevates the blood pressure of high end growers in Napa: picking grapes very ripe. Yeah, I couldn't believe it either, but apparently a lot of growers, led by Andy Beckstoffer are getting pretty upset that winemakers want to reduce yields and have their grapes picked at a point of near over-ripeness. Alan Goldfarb covers it in a recent article for the St. Helena Star, a local paper in Napa.

Explaining why this phenomenon has raised Beckstoffer's hackles is a good excuse to learn something about how boutique winemakers get ahold of the grapes that they use for their wines.

Here's the way it works: If you're someone who owns a vineyard in a prime growing zone, you can make money two ways: make wine from your own grapes and sell that, or sell the grapes you grow to someone else to make wine. Selling your grapes happens in one of two ways. The first, but less desirable way is to harvest the grapes yourself and sell them by the ton on the open market. You advertise, someone buys. This is how a lot of beginning winemakers get started, buying grapes like this at generally decent, even bargain prices. The second and most preferable way is to set up a growing contract with a specific winemaker, which can often last several years. In this relationship you select a specific vineyard, or section of a vineyard and set a contract price for the grapes by the ton. As a winegrower you also commit to caring and harvesting, and sometimes reducing the yield of grapes according to the wishes of the winemaker.

This is the root of Beckstoffer's problem. You see, grapes weigh the most when they are perfectly ripe, bursting with fluids that they've painfully eked out of the low moisture soil, sun, and air. Therefore as a winegrower, you make the most money when grapes are picked ripe and yields are relatively high.

However, one of the tried and true (even ancient) methods of improving the concentration and flavor of a wine is to reduce yields and pick super-ripe. This means that whole bunches of grapes are removed from the vines, leaving only a couple of bunches on each vine to receive the most moisture and sun. These few bunches are left to ripen to the point that they start to shrivel a little in the sun. In the process, some moisture is baked out of them and their sugars concentrate. It's this concentration that often makes for big fruit flavors in a wine, especially a red wine.

Do you see why Beckstoffer is pissed? All these winemakers he's got contracts with are enforcing practices that reduce the amount that the grapes weigh, and therefore how much he gets paid at the end of the harvest. Understandably, it doesn't cost him any less to take care of a vineyard that is being managed in this way, so his margins are lower.

In my opinion, however, he's just not acknowledging a shift in the market. At the end of the day, his customers want something specific. If he's not willing to supply that, then they'll go elsewhere. The guy may be able to raise some ruckus by convening a special meeting of winegrowers, but at the end of the day he needs to simply raise his prices. After all, he deserves to make a living. Conversely, if winemakers want that much control, they should have to pay for it. I've never been a 100% believer in market forces, but in this case, I'm sure it will work out.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud