The movie Sideways recently had everyone talking about wine – in particular Pinot Noir from California. Our interest was sufficiently piqued to plan a viticultural study tour to California to see what the fuss was all about.

This was not the only reason, however. The main purpose of the tour was to figure out what makes the Californian wine industry sustainable. We wanted to learn more, inter alia, about differentiation between wine objectives, cultivars of the future, new technology and the entire concept of sustainability. The tour group consisted of: Johan Viljoen, Willem Botha, Koos van der Merwe (Wellington and Wamakersvallei) and Pieter Carstens (Perdeberg). Areas visited included the Central Coast, Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and Alexander Valley.

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1. Overview of the Californian wine industry

The Californian wine industry, which constitutes 211 253 hectares (2005), is twice as big as the South African wine industry, measured in surface planted to vines. Red vines constitute 117 453 hectares (56%) (see Figure 1). In 2005 California crushed 4.3 million tons of grapes, approximately four times more than the SA industry in the same vintage (Figure 2).

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are by far the most planted cultivars in California, followed by Merlot, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir (see Figure 3). In recent years plantings of these cultivars have decreased dramatically compared to past plantings (Figure 4).

2. What makes them different

Climate

Climate is probably the single most distinctive feature in California’s favour. It gets just as hot, and in some areas even hotter than the South African wine producing areas; the biggest difference being that large parts of California are foggy until approximately 11:00, due to upsurges of oceanic air in the respective valleys. As a result heat units are fewer than in South Africa. What is more, temperatures peak before the ripening period and then decrease dramatically. SA temperatures peak during the ripening period and remain high for a longer period than in California. The absence of rain during the ripening period contributes to low disease pressure compared to the higher pressure experienced in South Africa.

Cultivation practices

One thing about the Americans is that they do things properly. There are no half measures. This is fairly obvious when one takes a look at their vine development. Correct vine development is of crucial importance to the Californians. No expense is spared during vine development, regardless of wine objective. They focus mostly on straight trunks to obtain a balanced vine framework. This task is facilitated by planting a support stake alongside each vine. The stake is used not only for trellising, but also to contribute to the overall support of the trellis system. Nowadays most stakes are made of metal, since the cost of wood in America has seen enormous increases in recent years. If they want to bring down the costs of cultivation, they rather do so as far as soil preparation is concerned. This does not mean, however, that soil preparation is neglected – in such instances they prepare only the soil along the vineyard row, and not the total soil volume, as happens here.

When Californian producers have to decide which cultivar to plant, the market place plays a very important role. Equally important is the area/wine region where planting will take place. Californians plant only to make money. If a particular cultivar does not have a place in the market, it is either uprooted, or in some instances regrafted. Plantings also occur according to area. In the warmer areas (Paso Robles) Cabernet and Merlot are planted, compared to the cooler areas where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (Napa, Sonoma) are commonly encountered.

Wine quality in California is never compromised. This concept applies to all aspects of the quality triangle with practices that are suitable to the price point at which the grapes will be purchased (“horses for courses”). The wine objective is borne in mind right from the planting stage, as this will determine the intensity of canopy management and trellis system. South Africa is completely on a par with California as regards canopy management. The Californian producer, however, is more market oriented in his canopy management, in view of the fact that brands may be allocated already in the vineyard.

With regard to higher price vineyards ( 200 +/ton), the intensity of the cultivation practices is extremely high. In the latter instances the precision and timing of the action are supremely important. These vineyards are usually trellised on the ordinary hedge and/or lyre systems. The same norms as in the SA industry apply to these vineyards. Stringent suckering, tipping, breaking out of leaves (depending on the region), and crop control actions are executed.

Vineyards in the lower price category ($ 600 – 200/ton) are still subject to the usual sound practices, but the precision of the action is not quite as important. However, the timing and result of the management practices remain very important. The trellis systems of these vineyards are also more focused on production. The lyre and/or Californian Sprawl trellis system is common practice. If hedge systems are used, they are managed to be more open, with less emphasis on shoot positioning and tucking in of shoots.

In vineyards producing grapes that are sold for less than 0 per ton, the Californian Sprawl system is generally used and canopy management focuses only on producing healthy grapes. Here geographic area also plays a very big role with the San Joaquin Valley falling mainly in this category.

3. Cultivar choices in different wine regions and the preferences/perception of where a cultivar is likely to fare well or has done so historically

Napa, Napa, Napa … this is all one hears throughout the entire California. Whether spoken with envy, desire or pride, Napa is and will remain the iconic wine region (for many years to come, in our opinion) as far as the Californian wine and grape producers are concerned.

Some new regions aspire to becoming the “new Napa”, for example the Santa Lucia Highlands region that is being developed against the eastern slopes of the mountain range between the Central Coast and the Californian coast. Plantings consist mainly of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

White

Maximum daily temperatures in almost all the Californian viticultural regions can exceed 40C (as indicated above), although this usually happens for a very short period in the course of the day. This has negative implications for the flavour spectrum of Sauvignon Blanc grapes, as happens to a much larger extent in most of the wine regions in South Africa. The finding of the tour group was that Californian viticulturists and winemakers try to work with this phenomenon and make more tropical style Sauvignon Blanc wines. Grapes are harvested at optimum ripeness in contrast to South Africa, where we try our utmost to make Sauvignon Blanc wines with a “greener” flavour spectrum. Reverse osmosis is seldom applied to Sauvignon Blanc in California.

A concerted effort is still being made to establish Sauvignon Blanc in the cooler regions, e.g. in Sonoma and Santa Barbara, but even so the focus is on the more tropical wine styles.

Chardonnay, which has doubled in total surface over the past six years, is the most planted cultivar in California. New plantings are concentrated in the cooler regions (Sonoma, Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Barbara), so that the grapes may reach better phenological ripeness levels at the time of the harvest.

Red

The most planted red cultivar is Cabernet Sauvignon. A huge effort is being made to reduce and/or prevent the occurrence of green (vegetative) flavours in these wines. Establishment of new Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards preferably occurs in the “warmer” regions of California.

The same holds true for Merlot, but according to winemakers, marketers and producers the popularity of this cultivar seems to be waning. The biggest problems seem to be the presence of green flavours, as well as browning of the wines.

Over the past six years viticultural expansion has been focused on the establishment of Pinot Noir, which currently enjoys huge success in the Californian wine industry (from a very small basis). Plantings of this cultivar preferably occur in the cooler regions together with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Vinification practices for white and red wines entail far more wood treatment (especially i.t.o. barrel fermentation and maturation) than is currently the case in South Africa. The Californian consumer prefers wines with prominent wood flavours. Fuller wine styles also mean that wines generally contain higher res sugar levels in order to help maintain balance.

4. Business environment: Company vs co-op

One fundamental difference between the Californian and South African wine industries is that all wine cellars in California are run as businesses, compared to the large-scale co-operative environment in South Africa. The last co-operative wine cellar in California transformed to a company in 2005.

Approximately 80% of all grapes are purchased from grape growers by the four largest companies, i.e. Constellation, Gallo, Fosters and Diageo (all public companies). By contrast 80% of the total SA grape and wine crop is produced within the co-operative environment.

Grape contracts

Within the above-mentioned business environment, grapes are produced for the prospective buyer in terms of prearranged contracts. Such contracts indicate the volume in question, grape analyses at the time of the crush as well as the price ($/t) per block. In some instances minimum viticultural specifications will be stipulated, but on the whole producers make use of private viti- and/or oenological consultants.

Both contracting out of blocks and price determination are based mainly on the historical performance of wines from individual vineyards. Communication of this information from the cellar to the producer is considered extremely important.

Producers are able to manage profitability of individual blocks reasonably well, based on prior indication, through the grape contracts, of the actual anticipated income.

Vinification in a market driven system

A market driven production system is maintained through intensive research i.t.o. specific requirements of the consumer as regards cultivar preferences, wine style, price range and volume. Individual companies spend large amounts (no figure available) on advertising and other marketing actions and consider this to be one of the key success factors in the very competitive international wine industry.

The message from the market to the producer is loud and clear. High importance is therefore attached to classification of both vineyards and grapes. Grape buyers link each vineyard to a specific wine objective or “programme” and therefore also price category. So for example grapes of a lower quality are either not purchased at all or at a very low price (e.g. 0/ton). On the other hand grapes of sought after cultivars and quality are purchased for vast amounts (> 500/ton), depending on region of origin, and present growers with an extremely profitable business.

How do cellars comply with market driven production

Once the grapes have been harvested and delivered (according to the specifications of the purchase contract), the cellar is solely responsible for achieving the eventual wine objective. The reason being that the grapes have already been accepted and the producer therefore has to receive the contracted amount per ton. Consequently any mistakes during the vinification process will have to be borne by the cellar alone.

Technology in the cellars is largely comparable to that in South Africa. However, in many instances cellar buildings were designed with a view to effortless expansion. Hygiene in cellars is of a very high standard. Winemakers are most fearful of Brettanomyces, consequently all the cellars have ozone plants. The latter is extremely efficient in disinfecting barrels, tanks, walls and floors. Although this requires a hefty initial outlay, the saving in chemicals is considerable. Moreover, the chemicals used in the cleaning process are so strictly regulated that ozone makes a lot of sense.

The use of oenological consultants is common in an attempt to limit mistakes and restrict cellar losses to the absolute minimum, unlike our local industry, where such persons are used minimally.

5. Perspective on sustainability

Environmental awareness is a very high priority throughout the USA. Consequently the entire agricultural sector is bound by very strict regulations with regard to e.g. air pollution (dust), the use of chemicals, energy consumption and social responsibility.

As a result, a regional project was launched in the Lodi region (central California), based on the three pillars of environmentally friendly, economically sustainable and socially responsible cultivation of wine grapes. The principle entails doing “the right thing in the right way for the right reason”, and is defined as follows in the manual entitled the Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook:

“… a long-term approach to growing quality wine grapes by combining biological, cultural and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, environmental and health risks.”

For producers in Lodi this already represents a lifestyle and is no longer experienced as an enforced regulation. The success story of Lodi has already resulted in the development of a sustainability programme for the entire industry, which is being promoted by the Californian Assosiation of Winegrape Growers as well as the Wine Institute.

6. Conclusion

Through market oriented wine production the Californian industry has already established itself as one of the major role players in the world. Compared to their South African counterparts, Californian wine producers find themselves in a more economically sustainable position. According to our contacts, the evolution from a co-operative to a company environment played a decisive role.

The challenge for the South African wine industry is to avoid getting stuck in traditional grape production and vinification techniques, and to be receptive to alternatives in an attempt to remain competitive at all levels.

In the international arena South African wines are already perceived as sought-after products. The necessary knowledge, technology and experience are readily available and will have to be implemented throughout the entire supply chain to ground level in order to make the SA wine producer and industry internationally competitive.

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