We were driving through California’s Central Valley over the weekend, with absolutely nothing to do with wine on the agenda.
Still, surrounded by vines dappled with juicy grapes, it was impossible to “ignore” where we were. And when we spotted a lone farmer near the road, inspecting the individual vines in anticipation of the harvest season beginning within a few weeks, I couldn’t help but stop.
The farmer was ready for a break, and gratefully accepted a bottle of iced-down water. We got the impression this wasn’t the first time he’d been approached by a couple of wine lovers.
I’d heard that some wineries this year had been struggling with the matter of what to do with some of their wine that has aging in tanks and barrels. The questions in their minds are 1) when to bottle it, and 2) how much to bottle.
It’ a very different marketplace at the moment, and sales patterns of the past, for most wineries, mean next to nothing when it comes to forecasting the future.
That said, wineries do have options. As an example, rather than bottling 100 percent of their Cabernet Sauvignon as a varietal wine (as so many estates in the Napa Valley do), they might opt to bottle a certain percentage that way and use a higher-than-normal percentage in a “house blend.” Another possibility: Create a brand new “house blend.”
I’ve even heard that some wineries that have rarely, if ever, done it in the past will be selling off some of their wine on the bulk market, just to make room for the juice of what they believe might be a superior vintage in 2020.
Those are some of the considerations taking place at the wineries. But what about the growers? How is the current state of affairs impacting them?
The grower we encountered agreed to talk about that, on the record, as long as I didn’t use his name.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “In a normal year, I have about 79 to 81 percent of my vineyard under contract, meaning a certain number of wineries have already agreed to buy the grapes from that portion of the vineyard.”
What happens to the rest?
“I keep a very small amount — less than 1 percent — for my own use. I’m sort of teaching myself how to make wine, with a lot of help from some of the people I sell fruit to. The rest goes to small operations that just want a little bit of this or a little bit of that. Some of it even goes to hobby winemakers like me.”
What does he expect will happen this year?
“Well, I’m going to have to wait and see,” the farmer told us. “Even when you have a contract, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to take all of the fruit they’re contracted for. And you really don’t want to dig in about honoring the contract because you need to maintain the relationship. Sometimes you just get stuck.”
He’s also concerned about that other 20 percent.
“Every winery — big and small — is in the same boat,” he said. “They just don’t know how much wine they’re going to need, so they don’t know how much fruit they’re going to need.
“It’s going to be an interesting harvest.”
With that, we wished him luck and thanked him for his time.
“Thanks for the water!” he replied.
And as we began to pull away, my wife rolled down her window and offered him another bottle. He accepted it gladly, and we began our drive back home.