December 16, 2012

Massive Napa do-over prompts grape plant shortage

As demand for premium wines perks up, growers are replacing aging vines, planting new varieties and moving toward mechanization.

By TRACIE CONE/The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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Vineyard manager Chris Pedemonte walks last week through a vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon that was replanted this past spring at Round Pond Estate in Rutherford, Calif. Napa Valley, one of California's premier wine growing regions, has an uncommon problem these days: not enough new grape root stock to go around. Commercial nurseries were caught short by a trifecta of developments: aging vines planted after a deadly phylloxera outbreak of the 1980s; the demand created by an improving economy, and a move toward grape plantings that allow some mechanization.

The Associated Press

Trefethen was founded in 1968 when there were just 15 wineries in the Napa Valley. Since the phylloxera replanting, they've learned more about the types of vines suited to the soil and the trellis structure that best supports them. Cabernet sauvignon grapes that ripen in the shade can taste like bell peppers, but those with low vigor and clusters exposed to direct sunlight can develop a raisin-like flavor.

Ruel says changing rootstock, as he is doing, is like rotating crops — you end up with a plant that is more resistant to whatever pests and disease exist in the soil.

"Every time you replant you have the opportunity to do it smarter," said Ruel, who will replace 40 acres a year until his redo is complete. "It's really an exciting time because it's an opportunity to reinvest in our vineyard with a better understanding of how we can produce the best possible grapes and in a sustainable fashion as well."

Most of the new plantings going on across Napa Valley are cabernet sauvignon, the varietal for which the region is most associated, Monette said. But others are planting rising stars petit verdot, malbec and petite sirah for blending.

Beckstoffer Vineyards is looking at new rootstock and clones as cabernet vines are replaced on more than 200 acres. They've placed some orders for 2014 delivery.

"We've been developing for two years when (grape) prices were low because we saw they would come back. We'd rather have fruit available than wait two years for it, even when prices were very low," David Beckstoffer said. "Replanting is expensive, but when prices are where you want them to be your investment pays off."

Over the past two decades, the bucolic Napa Valley has transformed itself into a showplace of wineries as celebrities and the rich erect grand palaces to host $25 tastings of estate-grown vintages. Now growers and winemakers who believe that the best wines are made on the vines are eager to see what improvements this new generation of plants will bring.

It's a chance, Putnam said, for Napa Valley to raise the bar again.

"You only get an opportunity like this every 20 years," she said. "There's a very optimistic feeling here. This is a place that's looking ahead and planning ahead."

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