Wineries battle over baby vines

Winemakers and Californians should be thrilled that demand for a major export is rising even in a down economy. Even still, it will take years for wineries in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Lodi regions to fully bounce back.

A major obstacle wineries face in meeting demand is the halt in vineyard expansion during the slow years. Weakened sales of California wine resulted in lower demand for new grapevines. As a result, nurseries cut back on how many they planted.

From 2009 to 2010, wine producing grape vineyards actually decreased in size by over 3,000 acres in Sonoma County alone. This put a strain on supply when demand for California wine jumped by more than 5 percent.

Actual expansion of production acres hasn’t happened since 2000.

Jay Jensen, CEO of Santa Rosa-based grapevine nursery Novanine, said that in 15 years of business the industry has never demanded more vines than he could supply.

And it takes so long for a grape vine to reach maturity that even wineries lucky enough to snag new vines and expand their acres won’t directly benefit for years.

So far in the battle for baby vines, California’s larger vineyards have flexed their muscles and nearly made expansion impossible for smaller players. The supply of vines for 2012 is almost sold out, and the 2013 supply is quickly dwindling.

Joe Ciatti, partner at Zepponi & Co., a winery brokerage firm, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that catching up with demand is going to take time:

“It doesn’t mean that we’re going to run out of wine totally. Prices will probably go up, and that could soften demand. … But historically, that hasn’t happened. We’ve pretty much had to plant to get out of it, because demand kept going.”