We spent Wednesday at the Unified Wine Symposium in Sacramento walking the show floor. Most of your wine, vineyard equipment and various services are represented by several hundred booths and floor displays - with the exception of distributors. You get to fondle all the barrels you can't afford, the stainless guys roll out their most beautiful custom micro tanks, and we spent a lot of time at the capsule booths figuring out what the next packaging step might be for us and looking for a few this-or-that thingies.
The mood was on the quiet side, and there was an unusual amount of room to roam. Attendance seemed down. The classes were experiencing lighter traffic and the final day's seminar was discounted. There can not be much doubt about the state of the wine industry. Overall wine consumption is up 2%, but California wine was down 1.6% - the first negative gain in 16 years. Granted this is a national-size snapshot, and our own little corner of the world in Lake County may look different, but the economic climate is still the same. Anything over $20 is dead, and many consumers respond that anything over $12 is off limits. Cheap imports are up, and restaurants are still closing. The national stranglehold of three-tier distribution insures that the pain for small wineries will continue as we are forced to compete directly against them as well on a dollar-for-dollar level. And, distributors have shifted and consolidated, creating an even more monolithic stranglehold. The small family distributors are still hanging on, but their market is shrinking as more people go to the grocery store and Bevmo shelves. The day of the neighborhood wine shop is largely dead and buried, a sad victim of big-box discounting. The economy of scale is ruthless on our side too. Bottles, corks, and printing cost more because of the smaller-size lots involved. A case of bottles without any wine in them costs us $30. Every month we feature a discounted case in the tasting room at approximately $100 for wine club members. Our normal case price is not much higher. A quick look at the cost of grape growing, winemaking, labor and overhead makes you wonder how it can all come together at the end of the day. We are not alone.
But, despite the current climate, the general atmosphere was vaguely upbeat. Many seemed to feel actually pretty good. There were fewer people but more serious business was taking place. It felt like those left standing have another year behind them and a stronger focus on the future. The worst is behind us, or at least the confusion and panic. Soon all the those grapes left hanging in Lake County (my guess is 30% went unsold) will be on the ground with the prunings and a new year starts again. Everyone has streamlined and there is some pleasure in that, and business moves on.
After the show there was plenty of wine open all over downtown Sacramento. Nearly every hotel and restaurant hosts a tasting whether it is related to sales or not. There must have been ten promoting digital labels going on at the same time. We went to Mendocino County's which was purely informal. No sales, just a chance to get together and chat over a table full of Mendocino County wines. Much more exciting was Nova Vine's reception for Dr. Eugenio Sartori of Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo in Italy. These are where the VCR clones come from. They have, no lie, 60,000,000 vines growing on 150,000 acres in Northern Italy. These are the people who Novavine gets there unique clonal selections from that we plant and make wine from. They are also very active in crossing selections and creating new hybrids. He noted several things of interest that were central to their business model and indicative of the global wine market. First, red wine vines are way down and whites are way up - this was a shock. Here in silly "I only drink red" land, this was incredible. Secondly, he was quite open in stating that their hybridizing program is driven by the market place, and what that market place wants is full phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels. More flavor, less alcohol. Blunt and realistic. Several of their recent experiments had a little detail behind them. Some of the more interesting crosses were a Barbera and Nebbiolo that retains Nebbiolo phenolics but can take heat, a Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon that bears no resemblance to either, and several unique whites, one of which was Pinot Blanc and maybe Gruner? Sign me up for that one if I am remembering properly.
Returning to the optimistic theme, most of us brought a few bottles of our own wines, mostly vines purchased from Nova and clones from Rauscedo. Lots of trellissing talk, maceration times and soil profiles were compared. Everyone happily talked shop, compared notes and enjoyed a table full of Cal-Itals - a rare sight that felt really good and was fun to taste. The illusory Seghesio Chianti Sation even appeared, as well as their Aglianico. During our little love-in, Gamba barrels had their own tasting next door, empty Barolo bottles were left lying around and Fresno State's viticulture program was next to them. Most had smiles, and the satisfaction of knowing that this year will be better.