Americans continue love affair with wine

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Cougar Ridge Syrah ages in the Hungarian oak barrels behind Jonathon Kludt at Lake Chelan Winery in Manson, Wash. Kludt, 30, vintner for his family wineries, has helped wineries grow on Washington's Lake Chelan. The lake now is its own American Viticultural Area. See Page 2.

Growers see strong, continuing interest in locally grown wine

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

Amid a sluggish economic recovery, Americans are still deepening their love affair with wine.

Despite the recession, California vintners shipped 467.7 million gallons to the U.S. wine market in 2009, up slightly from the previous year, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

The momentum carried into this year, as California shipments to other states through May had increased by 1 percent over the same period in 2009, said Gladys Horiuchi, the Wine Institute's communications manager.

Vintners in the Northwest and elsewhere are having greater success, too. Sales of wine from domestic sources in U.S. stores grew 2 percent in 2009, according to the Nielsen Co., which analyzes global consumer data.

Both overall and per capita wine consumption in the U.S. set records again in 2009, and U.S. production rose for the fourth straight year, according to Wine Institute statistics.

"People seem to be unwilling to give up their wine," Horiuchi said. "I think it's just been holding its own."

Such has been the case for Alan and Jana Leard, owners of the Vintner's Cellar in Redding, Calif., one of four such franchises in the West. The business contracts with vineyards all over the world for grapes and allows its customers to help make their own wines and labels.

"So far so good," Alan Leard said of the Redding winery, which has been open four years. "Our business really hasn't dropped due to the economy. Growth has been off a bit. ... We expect to hopefully see better growth in the next year or two."

While many shoppers gravitated to cheaper varieties last year, sales in all price ranges grew in volume. Sales of wines up to $7 a bottle increased by 2 percent, accounting for 72 percent of sales quantity, the Wine Institute reports.

Wines costing $7 to $10 a bottle were up 3 percent, with sales of wines costing $10 to $14 jumping 7 percent and more expensive wines increasing their sales by 2 percent, according to the organization.

The "big four" of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and white Zinfandel are still tops with consumers, but other wines have been gaining in popularity, such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Though vineyards have seemingly been cropping up everywhere, California still produces about 90 percent of U.S. wines. In all, 631.5 million of the 707 million gallons produced last year were from the Golden State, according to the institute.

Still, most wine-producing states have seen their sales go up, said Cary Greene, chief operating officer and general council for WineAmerica, which represents wineries nationwide.

In the Northwest, Washington's 2009 wine grape production of 156,000 tons was a record high, with growers receiving an average of $989 per ton for all varieties, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

In Oregon, the average wine grape prices posted steady increases from 2002 until last year, when the statewide average of $1,910 per ton in 2009 was $140 per ton off the previous year. But production of grapes from Oregon vineyards topped 40,000 tons for the first time last year, according to NASS.

A key driver for improved sales has been the locally grown movement, which has made people more familiar with local wines, Greene said. As people become more aware of Northwestern wines, for instance, they'll be more likely to look for them on restaurant menus and find them in supermarkets, he said.

"The trends don't seem to be slowing down in terms of the growth of local wine," Greene said. "The way we always view this is the small wineries in each state make each state more of a wine-drinking state and increase sales and production long term."

On pristine land near Jacksonville, Ore., Bill and Barbara Steele planted grapes in 2005, and their first wines with the Cowhorn label just recently came of age.

Cowhorn's 2008 Spiral 36, a blend of Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier grapes, drew stellar reviews from media and was an early sell-out in its first year, prompting the Steeles to plant nearly 14,000 new vines to keep up with demand, winery spokesman Paul West said.

The Southern Oregon vintners specialize in biodynamic wines, meaning their practices meet stringent eco-friendly standards set out by an international certifying body.

"Southern Oregon is one of the few wine regions that's not in the shadow of a major metropolis," West said. "That is giving us some unique qualities, not the least of which is you can really have some pretty pristine land around here to grow grapes and make wine on."

The increases in overall consumption and in consumers' interests in boutique blends continue a national trend that's existed since the early 1990s, when sales of varietal label wines first started to outsell generic reds and whites.

"Americans are just simply more wine-knowledgeable than a couple decades ago or even a decade ago," Horiuchi said.

A beverage that grew up with the Baby Boom generation is now a staple at the dinner table for later generations of consumers, who are now of legal drinking age, Horiuchi said.

"I think wine is simply increasingly becoming more a part of the American lifestyle," she said. "I think it's just incrementally gained in popularity."

Acreage by state

Here is the number of bearing acres of wine grapes in the four Western states, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service:

California: 482,000.

Oregon: 15,000

Washington: 37,000

Idaho: 1,193 (all grapes)

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