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Monoculture in American Wine Regions

Bud Break

My favorite industry source, Wines and Vines had an interesting article on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon prices. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon owns the entirety of the valley these days.

They’re high.  Really. Really. Damn. High.

Much along the same lines, in Sonoma, Pinot Noir drives the bus.  

I can’t help but think, what happens in a wine region that has become something of a monoculture.  Quite frankly, it’s foolhardy for anyone with a vineyard in Napa Valley to grow anything other than Cabernet.

Given a standard Cabernet vineyard, you might make $7,000 per ton selling Cabernet. If you grew Merlot, you might get $2,000 of that these days.

Who in their right mind would grow Merlot or really, anything other than Cabernet in that scenario?

Really the only group who might be able to handle keeping other grapes in the vineyard, would be a winery with an estate vineyard.  At times your estate wine program grows what they know damn well will be nothing other than blending grapes.  But, if your winemaker hits on their blends consistently and those tend to go for the highest prices and keep the most consistent style year to year, it behooves you to make very sure that there’s enough of those blending grapes sitting around.

But, if you’re just a grower?

You graft vines over. You pull older ones out.  You get your vineyard over to Cabernet as quickly as you’re able to (after all, it still does cost you about $50,000 to get a single acre of vines online, grape growing isn’t a cheap endeavor).

What happens to regions that become monocultures?

Frankly, we don’t know. In the wine industry, we tend to look at old world wine regions to see how they do things.  In Bordeaux and really the rest of France, there are strict laws governing what grapes are in the ground. Bordeaux is known for blends and most vineyards have at least 3 of the 5 main varietals planted in the vineyard.  In Italy, it’s much the same, with the added focus on keeping a wider array of varietals because Sangiovese and Barbera take a long time to mature, while Dolcetto matures immediately. In Spain, Portugal and Germany there are blends and ying and yang wine grapes, some that need time, others that can be released immediately.

If you ask me to guess? I think vintners in Napa Valley and their counterparts in western Sonoma county will be concerned over both the long and the short term.  There’s been plenty of recent examples of regions where a specific varietal got decimated during a specific event.  As an example, Walla Walla lost a complete crop of fruit because of hail very late in a warm spring.

Not all grapes have bud break at the same time. Cabernet has bud break later.  That’s generally a damn good thing, you don’t lose an entire vintage like Walla Walla did.

But, it also ripens later.  If it has bud break a week or two later, it might ripen 6 weeks later.

In Napa Valley, hanging on the vine is a good thing.  But, October brings something that can kill off both the amount of fruit, as well as, the quality. Rain. In some years, it’s pretty nice to have some over ripened Merlot to add to your under ripened Cabernet Sauvignon to get to your normal mix, right?

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