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Winemakers in State See a 'Golden Age'

Varietals: Replanting because of phylloxera has allowed vintners to improve quality and productivity. For consumers, 'the revolution in the vineyards' means higher prices.


California vintners are proclaiming the beginning of another wine boom for the state that will exceed that of the heady early 1980s. The result for consumers is mixed: Quality is up--but so are prices.

The excitement is backed by grocery store sales data indicating major increases for virtually all premium varietal wines in 1995 over 1994. According to Nielsen Wine Scan Reports, which charts wine purchases in supermarkets, sales rose dramatically for the state's Chardonnay (up 23%), Pinot Noir (up 34%) and Merlot (up 45%).

"We are entering a new, golden age," said David Graves, owner and winemaker of Napa Valley's Saintsbury Cellars, at a "State of the Grape" presentation in Los Angeles last week for retailers and restaurateurs.

Several factors are responsible for the renaissance in wine sales: increasing scientific evidence that moderate consumption of wine decreases the risk of heart disease; a decline in calls for punitive taxation of wine to offset the costs of alcohol abuse; and major replantings in several areas that have provided an opportunity for growers to vastly improve quality and productivity in the state's premiere vineyards.

The replants were required after many vineyards were infested with phylloxera, an insect that attacks roots and kills the vine after a few years. As much as 80% of the Napa Valley will have to be replanted.

Vineyards were typically planted with 545 vines per acre in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, growers are tearing out the old vineyards affected by phylloxera and planting as many as 3,000 new disease-resistant vines per acre resulting in smaller berries on smaller clusters with more intense flavor.

"This is a phenomenal opportunity and there will be a revolution in the vineyards," said Al Buckland, president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Assn. "We can capitalize on the last 25 years of experience and replant with environmentally sound practices in mind."

Buckland says growers are adopting elements of organic farming to ensure a minimum of chemical input under a loosely defined system called "sustainable agriculture."

"Sustainable agriculture recognizes a need for a strong environmental program but also recognizes that you may have to [use a chemical] to save a crop," he says. Until Napa's phylloxera replants are completed, there will be persistent shortage of grapes compared to the non-phylloxera years.

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