Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | July 8, 2012

Labor is Like Fine Wine: Expensive

Whether you’re paying piecemeal, hourly or by the acre there’s a shortage of the right kind of labor right now and it’s not the expensive kind. The shortage of unskilled labor is being exacerbated by the failing U.S. economy and recent elections in Mexico.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is projecting $5 billion to $9 billion in annual produce-industry losses due to current labor shortages. In California alone, farmers are already reporting labor shortages of 30 percent to 40 percent at the onset of what is typically harvest season for much of California agriculture according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Los Carneros AVA Since 1983

I talk to numerous Farm Labor Contractors (FLCs) on an ongoing basis mostly because over the past several years I’ve connected them with buyers for their fruit. They didn’t know how to navigate the sales and marketing landscape of the complex grape market, I didn’t know you could use a fork to rake sunburned fruit out of a cluster and save the other half. The relationship just works. Apparently the relationship is working out so well that an FLC said his crews have started to ask, “do we get to go back to the Queen of Carneros’ Ranch?” It was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time.

Three months ago one FLC told me the pool of laborers from the Central Valley are no longer making the trip to the North Coast because the extra $1/hour doesn’t cover gas prices and is not substantial enough of an incentive.

A month ago a Sonoma based director of vineyard operations for a major conglomerate told me he raised his hourly rate from something like $10.44 to $10.88 just keep guys happy, on payroll and complete the operations he needed on schedule.

Three weeks ago I watched a vineyard manager, who is well respected in the industry and manages thousands of acres in the North Coast, negotiate at 8 p.m. over pennies on a piecemeal rate with a crew scheduled to work at 6 a.m. the very next day. He reasoned with the crew over the phone that he kept them working during slow periods and he would continue to give them steady work throughout the season – unlike others who were offering mere pennies more that particular week and who would surely lay them off in July and August.

Last week, a different major conglomerate told me they are utilizing more mechanical leafers not because they like them, but because there is such a shortage of labor and they have no choice. *Growers note, you will be hard pressed to find a winemaker or independent grower who will advocate for mechanical leafing. The technology is still sub par, damages fruit and is either too aggressive or not thorough enough to achieve the industry standard results like those of hand leafing.

Which leaves Sundays as a catch up day to most in the industry and can be a win win for both laborers struggling to make ends meet in this downward economy and growers who need seven day a week labor to keep on top of operations in the vineyard.

On Wednesday I negotiated $500 flat rate for a little under two acres of leafing at our small Merlot vineyard on the East side of Napa Valley. Last year I paid between $175-$250/acre for leafing (depends on vine count and how much canopy they have to remove).

It should be known that I have a good working knowledge of understanding and deciphering spanish. However, I am not as skilled as I should be speaking it. It keeps FLCs, their laborers and the throngs of mexican men who hang at Bistro Sabor on salsa night guessing at just what they can and cannot say in front of me. So on Saturday afternoon, just to be safe, I confirmed via translator the labor rate and the crew’s availability, which was six laborers, $500, leafing only. If I wanted shoot thinning that was another pass/extra money and another day my translator – who I now owe a favor to – relayed to me.

At 9:55 p.m. Saturday night, minutes after the Silva Sonnen UFC fight concluded the crew foreman called to re-negotiate a rate of $18/hour. I sometimes utilize another grower’s internal crew who works for me and the other grower for $12/hour and I told that to the crew foreman who wanted to re-negotiate. We settled on $15/hour and that they would leaf and shoot thin. Four to six guys were supposed to be there. Sunday morning at 6 a.m. there were two.

My assessment is that $18/hour skilled laborers are in vast supply on the North Coast, they need to make extra money on Sundays to supplement rising costs of living, but they want their standard $18/hour for unskilled labor operations. Unskilled and basic hand laborers are in short supply as a result of the ever rising cost of living in the North Coast and the new/reaffirmed attraction to a better life in Mexico under new/reinstated government.

Both growers and vintners organizations will tell you we have the best skilled labor force in the world who live and die by quality, quality, quality. That’s probably an overstatement, but true. And all that quality, quality, quality is costing, costing, costing.  Get to the meat of the issue though and just like there’s a place in the market and a consumer to pay for value, premium, and ultra premium wine so is there a need for unskilled labor, basic hand labor and skilled labor in the industry – priced accordingly.

Skilled labor wants $18/hour and they should probably get it particularly when its more difficult terrain or more labor intensive conditions; not only is it tedious work, but it takes a skill set and knowledge to perform those tasks. Unskilled labor to pull leaf is worth $10-12. But, we’ve run that pool dry due to gasoline prices; made it difficult to get work visas/green cards; lack affordable housing, and when growers are forced to agree to pay $18/hour on a Sunday for skilled laborers to pull leaf just because we need to get the work done – we set a precedence which is hard to go back on.

Moral of the story, growers aren’t getting cocky, as of July 2012 we now have to pay $15-18/hour for basic leafing which makes our costs to farm one ton significantly increase. We’re only doing our due diligence to share the labor issues with everyone, so no one feels left out and everyone knows the reason for increasing the price per ton.

My Uncle’s 50 acre ranch in Carneros puts out 1.5 tons to the acre Pommard clone Pinot Noir on 50 year old vines. Harvest crews sat on their picking lugs and re negotiated price per ton in the middle of the pick or flat out walked off the job for the past three years in a row. I told The Other Old Farmer Friday to get on the phone and call the winery now, who we’ve had a 25 year relationship with, and tell them that given the labor shortage at this point in the season they need to come up with a plan to pay crews hourly or help cover harvest costs because the situation won’t get any better, it can only get worse. Not to mention once a crew knows how long and hard of a pick your ranch is for such low tonnage they black ball you and don’t come back. Our options are dwindling at this particular ranch for upcoming harvests.

I am not the utmost authority on this topic: labor, immigration and wages. I can think of several better than I to discuss the nuances of the old/new Mexico regime and what that means for agriculture, particularly the wine industry. There are individuals who manage larger crews, more acreage, deal with 1000+ touchpoints related to labor, rates and availability than I. But my go-to person to enlighten me about such topics is now on my short-list of FLCs who I will no longer utilize or mingle with because they are either immoral, unprofessional, or I caught them saying something inappropriate about me in spanish. I find it’s a slippery slope for most and somehow if you’re one you’re probably all three.

Since my short list includes yet another offender, if you care to enlighten me, share a solution or want to waive the banner for piecemeal rates leave a comment. From the front lines of the 2012 vintage in Carneros at the Queen of Carneros’ Ranch – adios muchachos!

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | May 17, 2012

The Vineyard Labor Circus Is Here

The circus is in town. Didn’t get a ticket? I’ll give you insight into the Millennial mind in one sentence.

Facebook goes public on Friday, so I canceled my account.

Need more insight? I’m considering black listing several wine companies from buying Thomson Vineyards fruit in the future because I don’t like their business practices.

Nice Plot of Carneros Land for a Circus or Planting

I also contemplated an ambush yesterday on a vineyard management company who wants to buy an old Meyers spray rig from me to use as a fertilizer chamber. I mentioned to an Old Guy in the industry about the tank being repurposed as a fertilizer chamber and he said to make sure I have the check in hand from these particular people before I let the rig off my property.

This is not the first time the “doesn’t pay their bills” connotation has come up about this particular company, in fact it’s a regular topic of conversation in the Valley.

The ambush was going to involve another grower who the potential spray rig buyer still owes money to for a 2009 Cabernet deal. “You can have the spray rig for $500 and be a gentleman and pay up” was basically how I envisioned it going down.

Someone out there is always trying to make claims about what the Millennials do and do not want. One thing many of my peers are is socially conscientious. Some would qualify this as “altruistic” or “idealistic” also “skeptical of The Man” – conforming is just not of interest to us.

As a result, I’m finding that navigating the business side of wine grape growing is a regular three-ring circus. I constantly have the discussion with myself if I want to be aligned with this person or that company. I detest having to call in favors to negociants. I am outspoken in public about who owes me money and what it costs for them to drive their Maserati around their Zinfandel Lane winery.

So while the Vineyard Economics Seminar reiterated for the fourth seminar in a row this year offered by a media outlet, consulting group, or otherwise that grapes prices are up and supply is down one thing that hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention, other than in snippets on the political airwaves, is that there is a fairly significant labor shortage going on at the moment and it’s not even June.

Three vineyard management companies I’ve spoken to in the past week say who cares about the Cabernet shortage, there’s a labor shortage going on right now. Workers are dropping off payroll lists and moving to the highest bidder every other day – like working in the vineyards is going out of style…which it is and that’s just one reason labor has become scarce.

Another reason for the shortage is that a decent portion of day laborers coming into the vineyards in the Valley to perform mass quantities of hand labor are driving daily from Stockton and $1 extra per hour over what they make there is simply not enough to cover the rising gas expense. So, there went that source.

Before you all get up on your Napa soapbox, simmer down, and realize or admit, whatever it takes, that suckering and leafing take a lot of hands and the majority cannot afford the Lamborghinis of mechanical options on the market – transported up and down Highway 29 by the big guys. The experienced and skilled laborers who do live in the Valleys are not as likely to be assigned to a hand labor crew daily. So no matter what some say, I suggest you start asking, “de donde eres, Stockton o Napa” each and every laborer you come across in the vineyard. Report back in the comments. I’d love to know.

Sidebar, it was a well-known fact that one of the big three was actually bussing laborers in to Up Valley Cabernet vineyards from the central valley last year. I’m sure their supplemental labor force hasn’t changed this year.

I received an email from another woman viticulturist last week, who manages a couple hundred acres, looking for a tractor operator. Just lost one of two of hers.

Within the same 72 hours I received that email, a large company not doing so well on the NASDAQ told me it had raised its labor rates in Sonoma County last week 80 cents to keep laborers happy.

2012 Women In Wine Production Technical Tasting at Elizabeth Spencer

Two friends of mine, unemployed and underemployed – another Millennial trait, both robust and strong Caucasian young men turned up their nose at the tractor operator idea. I had myself a good time on the tractor mowing the other day, but am finding myself with little to zero time left on the clock on at the end of each day.

In order to keep our operator happy who was scheduled to dust sulfur last night at the vineyard – I reenacted Christmas eve and left him a 1.1 Liter Stanley Canteen full of Taylor Maid Coffee (the fair trade and organic was most likely lost on him – but note the label, another Millennial preference – underground coffee hint: Blue Bottle and Ritual are too mainstream for us nowadays) of the strongest Goats Rock Roast I could brew and a slice of home made caramel pineapple cake just inside the equipment shed. This morning when I got to the vineyard it was untouched and I panicked thinking, “the labor shortage got me!” only to find out from him that the belt snapped on the duster and it would be another night before he got at it.

Last week the bunch of Millennial boys who played the Farm Bureau golf tournament busted my chops about being so outspoken. “Passionate” was the word they used to describe what they thought they knew about me, even though they’d never met me. It was probably the only polite thing they said to me all day long. They were just mad they didn’t hit the hole in one and win the Rainbow Ag truckster prize. Anyhow, mildly entertained by their antics and directness with me, the whole time I was really thinking in my head THIS is who I’m in “THIS” with for the rest of my grape growing years!?!

It’s probably because in stark contrast to my interaction with them, I had finished hosting the third Women In Wine Production Technical Rose Tasting with 20 lovely young women winemakers and enologists who managed to have a constructive and frank conversation with one another at Elizabeth Spencer winery last week about the current grape market. We basically came to the consensus that grape and wine prices have got to even out, because the extreme highs and lows aren’t doing anyone any favors. It was a comment among several which made me optimistic about the group of Millennial women emerging in the industry as leaders in the production workforce.

Farm Bureau Guys Chasing Hole In One Prizes Since 2003

One final piece of Millennial insight that they aren’t going to come up with at the circus (anything I write in this blog is considered first-use rights) is that if a wine was labeled “fair trade” rather than “organic” “natural” or “sustainable” I might actually consider joining a wine club for it (I currently hold no subscriptions). Because every Millennial knows those meaningless words are printed on high end paper with real ink not soy and zero continuity or regulation of any of the three. Those “practices” are what we 20 and 30 somethings created the term “green washing” for.

I believe those vineyards and wineries who could actually source local labor from vineyard to glass and show a record of it in every facet of their business may have the “organic” guys beat. Yep, us Millennials are pretty competitive. It’s a product of all our Boomer parents over enrolling us in sports and the little gold figurines awarded at the end of each season.

Got insight into the labor and lack of it this season? Leave a comment. Millennials love to talk over this confounded new thing the internet, you just can’t get them to pick up the phone any more. If you’re one of the 100+ voicemails in my inbox – just stop on by the vineyard and see me in person. I’m busy working. My advanced degree is going to real good use as a hand laborer!

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | April 13, 2012

Growers In The Frosty Seat. Wineries In The Hot Seat.

Facebook bought Instagram this week to the delight of just about every wine marketing department, blogger, and out of touch with reality wine industry star.

Meanwhile Google+ got a massive user interface makeover Wednesday, making it look more like a social network. Now The Valley’s social media junkies…I mean “experts” will have something to talk about with one another at the  next Facebook Meetup which is rumoured to replace Cheers to Taste who can no longer snake wineries into footing the bill – feeding and boozing up those in the “Industry” on an every month basis.

I take issue with the disclaimer at the bottom of “Industry” event registration pages which typically says something to the effect of “credentials required” READ: If you aren’t an IT specialist by day and write a “wine blog” from your cubicle while your boss isn’t looking you don’t count. Or another version along the lines of “Wineries, Distributors, Retailers proudly produce your heavy weight embossed card upon checking in” Never you mind that it takes growers ten months to get the fruit to winemakers who then turn it over to cellar masters to “master” and through the bottling line before the winery tasting room staff even has an inkling that a new release is scheduled for 6 months away or you social media experts have time to “Pin” it.

Last week growers, myself included, turned on frost protection units for up to five consecutive days. Which many of you “In the Industry” Tweeted or Facebooked about how loud the fans were. Or how sick you were of living like your bed was beneath the airstrip in SFO. For those Tweets and status updates alone you shouldn’t qualify anywhere as “Industry”.

East Bound 'n Down

Night one of the escapade I drove the six minutes across the Sonoma/Napa County line to start up my Cold Air Drain that is PTO driven by our Ford tractor which is limping along year to year begging for an overhaul into the Carl Moyer Program.

The frost alarm went off at 2:18 a.m. it was 36 degrees. As I watched the data from bed on my laptop be transmitted from another grower’s weather station 3 miles south of our vineyard into a cloud based system for 20 more minutes. The temperature steadily declined every few seconds. At 2:48 a.m. I threw on Under Armour and hopped in the car which registered 45 degrees. As I made it to Stornetta Dairy it was 39 degrees and the snowflake icon came on in the dash panel – which typically excites me as I head for Highway 50 and Tahoe. By Madonna Estate 36 degrees. And as I careened around the corner to see that Hyde’s fan was already whirring I accelerated into our own vineyard half way down the property to the lowest point where I jumped in the frosty tractor seat, preheated the diesel, and started the Shur Farms Cold Air Drain seconds before 3 a.m. as the thermometer in Block 5 Chardonnay read 33 degrees. This went on for four more nights and is likely to happen several times more this season.

So yes. I do believe every grower, vineyard manager, crew foreman and vineyard laborer is entitled to Industry recognition and entrance into EVERY event, no background check required except a handshake and maybe a thank you for doing what you do.

Several men recently shook my hand and responded, “What did you say you do for a living?” Or the more indiscreet ones shake their head and mumble something about “rough hands”. That should be credential enough to qualify as “Industry”.

It’s an eerie sight making the drive for the vineyard on frost nights. Yellow fog lights slowly creeping through vineyard rows towards the propane tank at 3 a.m. is something I bet the nine most popular bloggers in the universe have never witnessed. Yeah, I didn’t make the list either and will be sure to tell Mabry “You’re welcome” the next time I see him sipping “Legendary Napa Valley Cabernet” in the fireside nook at 1313 Main.

Second Year On The Team: Shur Farms Cold Air Drain.

What is it with you people and “Industry” cred anyhow? There are a hell of a lot more posers out there in the blogger, social media, hospitality, marketing and sales ranks than those doing the dirty work in the vineyards. I mean who doesn’t have an App that chooses your wine for you or makes an appointment at the next tasting room (tip not included). The “Coming Soon!” landing page is hardly legit in this day and age and don’t the cheap shirts printed at Cafepress.com with Wine<3 across the chest give it away that they’re NOT IN THE INDUSTRY!?!

Maybe you event planners should take a lesson from the corporate winery entities sending winemakers on the road and start stacking your guest lists with managers, foremen, viticulturists, and growers.

Better yet, just have your web master change the registration web form to include “Grower” so I don’t have to check the wine broker box any longer. Which on occasion I do personify a slightly legit wine broker (you’ve got to be multi-talented, faceted and diversified if you’re going to make it as a farmer) and I can tell you there is absolutely no 2011 bulk Chardonnay out there with which to “pump up” your 2011 Chardonnay. You take it as the vintage gives it to you and make a wine representative of the vineyard and the weather. That’s it.

While on the subject of Chardonnay. You must have been living in a dark vineyard pumphouse during the past few weeks if you aren’t aware of the severe grape and bulk wine shortage the Industry is experiencing. There are four ads in the Yellow Sheet for grapes. One is for a LEASE. There are a measly 52 listings on Winebusiness.com for fruit and five of them are WANTED.

The answer is plant more. The three real brokerages say wineries have to start paying growers more so they can plant more. The wineries say they’ll have to increase their bottle price if they have to pay growers more. The consumers (particularly the rowdy drunk Millennials) keep drinking more. And more. So it seems as if we’re all in a standstill.

I absolutely love Footloose the original. Mostly because I’ve got a reservoir in Carneros that resembles the backdrop to the guys playing chicken on tractors scene and the tractors circa 1984 to actually re-enact it.

I also pretty much adored working with one Up Valley Chardonnay producer last year who paid on time, accepted clean fruit at lesser than contracted brix, was the prefect picture of compromise. With their growing Chardonnay brand and a Carneros designate program, it seemed a natural fit to ask about a planting incentive this year and/or increased price per ton. Unfortunately I was met with, “Jennifer, thanks for the information, that’s too rich for my blood.”

And so it seems yet again I’m left with the golden ticket. A truckload of Napa Carneros Chardonnay available – 8 ton minimum. My phone number is 707 227 8745. Clone 17 & 76. And for the right price I’ll sign a two year agreement.

I also have 10 acres of Napa Carneros land to plant with access to water. It is the most fertile soil on the parcel. And I am accepting incentives.

Or we can just keep playing chicken.

I’m an awfully good tractor driver and I don’t mid sitting in a frosty seat. It sure beats the hot seat you wineries are going to be in if you can’t figure a way to tell your tasting rooms you can’t afford the custom closures, your events manager to reduce their spendy lobster feast wine club dinners, reign in the sales department who continues to buy booth space at Fort Mason drunkfests full of reckless Millennials or trim the fat elsewhere this year so you can BUY FRUIT (at prices which allow growers to plant) and MAKE WINE (to meet your consumer’s demanding and growing consumption rates).

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | March 5, 2012

Branding Sonoma: Winegrower Tell All

A month ago a slew of news stories came online like Sonoma Seeks Wine Image and Sonoma Develops a Branding Campaign – referring to Sonoma’s “brand” and how it was being developed by a team of experts. Simultaneously Sonoma’s “brand” was being built by a little network called ABC and a “Sonoma” winemaker named Ben Flajnik.

Truth be told I watched only 10 minutes of the first episode of The Bachelor and wanted to stab myself with a pair of dull pruning shears. Hysterical chicks, sleazy Forever 21 get-ups, cat fights chronicled blow by blow, more than tearful breakups, and a guy who can’t make up his mind if his wine brand is called Evolve or Envolve or if he’s going for the rancher rustic shag or hipster mop beneath the beannie…how was he ever going to choose just one!?!

The Ultimate Bromance

Rather than go into the disparaging details of Ben’s love life, with just the final episode to go I’d like to instead reference Middle America where the 99% now have a solid understanding of just what a “winemaker” is and a brand image in their head related to the sleepy little wine town known as Sonoma – thanks to the man Chris Harrison and his boy Flajnik.

If you’ve been keeping up with World News rather than the trash Ben’s been dating the 1% is still being crucified in the headlines. In case the team of experts Sonoma hired hadn’t considered the effect on Sonoma’s wine image when the 99% are left to their own devices on a Monday night and football season is over take a gander at the statistics TV by the Numbers reported last week:

Despite facing stiff competition throughout its 2-hour broadcast, ABC’s The Bachelor grew week to week in Adults 18-49 (+4%) to match its 2nd-highest number this season.  In addition, the ABC unscripted series equaled season-high ratings with Adults 18-34 and Women 18-34. The Bachelor finished #2 in its time period with key Women (W18-34/W18-49).

Coincidentally millennials and women are two of the most influential segments fueling the growth of the US wine industry. But the Daytona 500 was on the same night Ben was hot-tubbing with who knows who, so, you know…

If the wine industry was looking to capitalize on ABC’s The Bachelor featuring a winemaker to drive sales, then perhaps these ratings may have actually put a few points on the board for the industry and a few sales through several Sonoma winery POS systems. But, if Sonoma was looking to build a reputation, I think it did exactly that. The kind your mother says you don’t want.

In the corporate communications world we would have called in the crisis communications team well before the Women Tell All Special that aired tonight. But, we all know the wine industry and Napa’s little sister Sonoma are a bit slow. Or maybe she was just busy being pretty, rather than being smart.

Flajnik was seen sporting a “Hello My Name Is: Tim” name tag at the SF Chronicle Public Tasting. He snapped photos on the tradeshow floor at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium and reportedly had a bit of a celebrity complex when asked to hold products as part of the shot. I was chastised by several girlfriends for not bringing them along to the Pinot Noir Summit in SF last weekend as Benny Boy was rumoured to have been in the house. Would only make sense, the guy lives in San Francisco, not Sonoma, but I’m part of the 1% who actually knows that.

I’m fairly qualified to judge Ben’s capability to manage racking, pump overs, additions, filtration, bottling  from San Francisco because for the past two years I’ve managed three vineyard sites in Napa from San Francisco. And while I’ve managed to make it happen it’s not ideal. I spend nights at any number of vineyard locations. I shower in the vineyard office before heading out to events. I’ve nearly rolled my ankle twice the past two weeks navigating rural gravel driveways in heels to get out the door to evening wine events after de-vineyarding myself. So perhaps Ben really does “make wine” in Sonoma, but on a daily basis, I doubt it.

Nonetheless. Without going too much further let’s just leave it at that if the 99% wanted to know more about the industry and how wine is made, Ben has now done a pretty good job of putting a face to the word “winemaker” and all of you who actually hold that title should demanding a refund right about now.

Unlike Ben, before the end of the month I’ll be closing up the satellite office and making a more permanent home with a nice smelling shower, flat driveway, closet 1/2 full of vineyard clothes and 1/2 full of smart dresses, and my own bed next to a frost alarm in Carneros; where Ben has to wait for the biodynamic calendar to dictate his move to wine country, I’m sure.

Several have suggested that after Ben’s run, I be nominated as ABC’s next Bachelorette. I think not. I care about my reputation and have too many important vineyards to manage day in, day out. Besides, way more than 24 winemakers are already trying to date me AND my Chardonnay…there’s absolutely no time for Reality TV! Think I should give you a rose? Contact me.

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | February 22, 2012

Building Winegrapes in Argentina

Three years ago The Farmer began lecturing me about the cold hard facts of agribusiness, economies of scale, the basic principles of supply and demand as they apply to grapes, and the fact that the government only subsidizes five major crops in the US and winegrapes is not one of them.

One of his favorite rants begins with, “If they can build pears in Argentina and Chile and ship them to the port of San Francisco cheaper than we can build them in Carneros and deliver them from less than 60 miles away…” And so goes the story of being the last family in Carneros to have a pear contract with California Canners and Growers (Cal Can) in the 1960s.

Grower Walkabout - South America

A little over three weeks ago, fed up with his rants, I decided to see just how cheap they can build winegrapes in Argentina and Chile and ship them to California and went down to South America to have a look for myself.

Getting out of the country unscathed would have been asking for far too much though, so I stood patiently in the driveway of the vineyard as The Farmer ranted at me that the acacia trees were blooming and that I had better damn well cancel my trip and stay in Napa to prune.

As I turned on my heel to head for the Southern Hemisphere, I made one very simple request, “Farmer, please do not prune. Stay out of the vineyard.” Cut to the chase. He did not stay out of the vineyard while I was away and began pruning two acres of Chardonnay. That’s his test block this year. The rest is mine.

Passport in hand, a 15 hour flight with a layover in Lima and all the Argentine and Chilean vino tinto I could drink courtesy of LAN I arrived in Buenos Aires. Several nights spent dining at 11 p.m., dancing at 2 a.m. and clubbing till dawn was flanked by three days spent in Mendoza’s principal wine producing  regions: Maipú and Luján – which includes Argentina’s first delineated appellation established in 1993, Luján de Cuyo. And a week more after that in Chile.

As we descended from Buenos Aires into the Mendoza airport the third world nature of the wine industry in South America becomes more and more of a reality. Local municipalities were burning trash in the vineyards. And it didn’t stop there.

The intricate irrigation system used to bring water from melted snow caps in the Andes which originated in the 16th century is a vital component to all agriculture in Argentina. Water flows through a series of ditches and canals where it is stored in reservoirs for use by vineyards which can apply for government regulated water licenses that provide them access to the water. The government opens the waterways every 15 days and it’s up to vineyard owners whether they take the water at that time or not. Don’t take it and you won’t get it, whether you need it or not, for another 15 more days. Plastic bottles, bags and household trash litter the canals.

On our multi-day bicycle tour of the Mendoza wine region, which included a day off the bikes and in a private car (only the locals can tell you where to eat the best lomo) the  extreme differences between an emerging wine capital and our own Napa Valley were apparent yet again as we were escorted during later afternoon hours by Mendoza police on dirt bikes from one check point to another. Four Napa girls in tanktops and flip flops. Okay, I guess I understand their “concern”.

Proper Tank Inspection Crutial to Making Good Malbec

Viticulture practices appeared lax. In Napa, some now call this “organic”. The Farmer rants and says it’s lazy. Due to flood irrigation practices weeds are prevalent. Canopies are wild. Nonetheless in the four days we traveled the region we did not see one single worker in a vineyard. Zero hand labor. With the exception of one, maybe two, mechanical hedgers being operated. Maybe the labor force gave up on the heat and headed for the coast too. Temperatures topped out at 35 degrees celcius  every day. And Malbec growers insisted they still had six to eight weeks before harvest. My California grower palate would have put the Malbec I was tasting off the vine already at 24 brix.

Wine shipments commenced middle of the day. 18 wheel flatbeds loaded up with case goods, parked in the direct sunlight.

Each day I found myself questioning if we really are creating a superior “premium” product in California to that of our global competitors OR have we all just drank way too much of the Kool-Aid? Overall, the wines or Mendoza were great. In the global market, Argentine wines are on course to be widely accepted and purchased at a fair price point. And perhaps, due to their more “lax” viticutlture, operational, business practices they are indeed building it in Argentina and shipping it to the US for cheaper than what we can create and sell to our neighbors in our very own backyards.

4 Girls. 4 Steaks. Please.

Differences aside. If I could have shipped cases of the Argentine bife de chorizo back to the the states, I would have. The more than exceptional Torrontés made me think twice about planting any other unusual white varietal in Carneros – it certainly trumps Albariño or Grenache blanc. And the re use of centuries old buildings for modern day wine making purposes was rather refreshing throughout the bodegas we visited. The biodiversity which the region has retained by producing peaches, olives, beef and more – for me – made it an experience which far outpaced the Disneyland experience (yep, I said it) Napa has turned out to be.

Grower tested. Grower approved Argentine wines from Mendoza include:

Trapiche Extra Brut Rose: Pinot Noir and Malbec with an aromatic nose and forward fruit flavor.

Trapiche TorrontésBalanced across the nose and palate, golden in color. Dynamic floral and citrus fruit flavors.

Mevi Rose of Malbec: Garnet color flanked by robust yet refreshing plum flavor characteristics.

Mendel Unus: Two yet to be released barrel samples. The first a blend of Cabernet and Malbec. The second straight up Malbec. Complex, smooth finish, lasting impression.

24k Base Tans

The vegetative flavors of Chilean wine rivaled those in the 2011 vintage of California Cabernet, but the Chilean beaches certainly gave the Argentine nightlife a run for its money – which led to us ladies foregoing Santiago for Valpariso and the US Embassy searching for us throughout the better part of a week – meanwhile we were downing pitchers of Terremotos well into the early hours of what has become known as my annual international birthday vacation – and unexpectedly meeting an American Man among a crowded sea of Latin Lovers – all pretty much along the lines of you’ve gotta’ know me to love me and for me to tell you more!

Any additional details we may be willing to give up can be found en mis Amiga’s y my travel partner’s blog – Hossfeld Vineyards.

Ciao. Ciao. For now.

Someone used to sit beside me on long road trips and ask when I was quiet, “what are you thinking about right now?” More often than not I’d respond nothing. Every now and again I’d collect a penny or two.

A once a week blogger in 2010, I was just a once a month blogger in 2011. I felt uninspired, crunched for time, had bigger fish to fry. I was dealing with some stuff, okay?

In 2012 I’m going to attempt to be an every week blogger once again because, sorry guys, I actually have something of value to say rather than bitching about the 100 point system; or lamenting about Gallo throwing their weight around to expand the RRV appellation; waxing on and on about the Sonoma Vintners organizing a tasting of 400+ wines for Galloni and the implications of such an initiative; or the worst – Pancho Campo and his evil Spanish ways. He’s Latin. That’s how Latin men roll. Trust me.

2012 promises to be one of the most pivotal years in my Wine World Domination Plan since I launched it in 2009. And blogging it is the only way you’re all gonna’ get a chance to follow it.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I do my best blogging while driving. Don’t phone in a citizens arrest call to the CHP just yet. What I mean is that I put a lot of miles on my VW in 2011 transcending three great counties. Napa, Sonoma and the satellite office in San Francisco. I also put a lot of miles on the Ranch Rig delivering premium Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Time spent on the road is when I “write”. Typically I rush right into the house, nearest Starbucks or Carneros Deli with free WiFi to get what I’ve written out onto “paper”. Usually, but not always, it turns out pretty darn close to what story I’ve spun while driving Highway 101 or the back roads of Napa and Sonoma.

Since it’s just about the third week of January and I’m three posts behind, I figured I may as well just lay out three posts to catch me up (and a fourth to get me ahead) in one lengthy post and ya’ll can just pay me. It’s worth a lot damn more than 100 point scores and the people who give them.

The Farmer – Not Farmers Insurance

A small producer we work with called Lightheart Cellars in San Martin asked me for the Thomson Vineyards logo the other day so they could generously outfit me and The Farmer with some sweet field jackets. At the same time one of  The Farmer’s approximately 1,300 Twitter followers @BethSandefur tweeted,

“Saw a mention of the Farmer’s blimp and  immediately thought of @ThomsonVyrds Farmer, not Farmer’s Insurance.”

Branding mission accomplished! That same day, a winemaker tweeted back to me, “You’ll need a logo for that size advertising.” You see, Thomson Vineyards doesn’t have a logo. I’ve got pruning crews to pay.  No money or time to pay or supervise a graphic designer to get it “just right”. The thing about branding is that it about so much more than an image. And sometimes in life, it can’t always be “just right”. You have to let it work itself out to get it “just right”.

I strive to do a few things well, consistently. Primarily that’s deliver quality fruit, be professional yet lighthearted with clients while doing it, and continue building a positive and strong reputation for Thomson Vineyards.

Secondarily it’s using the same typeface across our website and business cards, coaching The Farmer on signing in at industry events as The Farmer, and wearing my latest stunna’ shades of choice – The Original Ray Ban Wayfarer when I set price per ton with new winemakers in the vineyard. Not nearly as menacing as the  aviators I know…mid 2011 harvest I tweeted,

“The ONLY person my reputation hangs on is the winemaker. The ONLY thing my reputation hangs on is the fruit.”

That’s my brand. I mean it and I stand by it.

Toby Kieth, Red Solo Cups & Expensive Wine

Neither Napa or Sonoma County has a decent country music station any longer. But from about Infineon Raceway to the Sonoma Square I can catch Froggy 92.9 out of Healdsburg.

A rather exceptional example of reason numero uno people hate country music is Toby Kieth’s Red Solo Cup hit. Each time I hear it though, I’m reminded of what it’s like to actually grow up and live in Napa. No. Not be a transplant to Napa, nor a wanna’ be transient. To live here means holiday house parties not $300 dinners at Redd.

Over this most recent holiday season I was privileged enough to drink ZD Winery’s $500 per bottle Abacus Cabernet Sauvignon …out of a red solo cup. They way I look at it, it’s kinda like making wine in poly tanks. If you’re moving juice through tanks fast enough it’s not actually in tank long enough to pick up the nuances of plastic. It also means you have a killer product and/or sales team if you’re moving wine that fast. You can read more about the high priced wine phenomena in an article published this week at Wines & Vines, High-Priced Wines Hottest in December.

About the same time I was drinking expensive ass wine out of red solo cups I happened to be at my favorite watering hole 1313 Main where another Grower commented to me as we made our usual grand entrance through the set of double doors, “oh, Ghost Winery is parked outside.” To which I responded, “yeah, I know them, they don’t pay very well for fruit.” Which is when the winemaker swung around on his bar stool and said, “ya, I own Ghost Mario Kart Winery, my bottle of Cab sells for $1,000.” Well played Ghost Winemaker. But truth be told, you still don’t pay very well. Especially for having a bottle worth a G on the retail market.

That very same Grower and I, becoming famous for grand entrances and giving winemakers a run for their money, are currently engineering a 100 buck a bottle Carneros Chardonnay. So we can compete among all the rest of the ridiculously expensive Napa wines being flounced around in the marketplace. Okay. Okay. It’s a pipe dream. But, it’s nice to dream.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…Just Build Your Own

Speaking of dreams. At the onset of my Wine World Domination Plan I told one of the two Carneros “Sons” that I was going to comandeer the Carneros Wine Alliance and actually make something of it. Problem was, I could never exactly figure out who the captain was in charge of that ship. Come to find out, it has been abandoned (so says a well known vineyard management company actively farming in Carneros). Figures. Abandoning ships seems to be the story of the month. More than you know. Anyhow, I had heard towards the end of 2011 that at one of the final Carneros Wine Alliance meetings, when asked who wanted to be president, everyone in the room looked around the room at one another and it was decided that no one wanted to be president.

It’s difficult to fix something that’s already so broken. So I put together my own underground group. Except I don’t intend for it to be so underground. In December I hosted the first Women in Wine Production networking group for all the up and coming women in this industry who work in production and need a sounding board for new ideas, a resource for networking and jobs, an infrastructure and support system to keep on climbing their way to the top. A couple of emails later, some bottles of wine and platter of cheese, 25 women showed up to downtown Napa to network, all under the age of 35.

Attendees included winemakers and enologists from some of Napa’s finest Chardonnay houses Clos du Val, Groth, Sequoia Grove and Emma Pearl. Viticulturists from Diageo and several family operated vineyards well known in The Valley. Business strategists doing R&D for some of the industries most dynamic product offerings and others, many others. More than 10 women emailed me to say beforehand they couldn’t make it but to please plan another and they would be there.

If you’re a woman working on the production side of the industry email me and we’ll include you on the next meeting invitation. Our intent is to meet quarterly. Our mission is to keep climbing our way to the top.

They say when it rains it pours. Simultaneously as I constructed my own “association” (by the way, both of these groups have NO membership dues) I also offered to help in any way I could with The Napa County Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers. Having attended meetings for just over a year and collected my fair share of tips at the First Annual Wine Country Tractor Pull (those boys are smart, they put the girl at the cash register) I figured I could carve out a bit more time, from somewhere, to spare.

This Tuesday, while on my way to the second Executive Committee Meeting of the year my Ranch Rig got a flat tire. Long story short, I was late to the meeting. And when you’re late to the meeting you get volunteered for things. So, listen up. If you’re under the age of 35 in Napa, Sonoma or as far away as you care to drive and interested in agriculture, education, being a part of a group who really are the up and comers of the wine industry, as the new president of YF&R I’m happy to help grow and further develop its place in the community.

I hope that whether you work in the vineyards, on the farm, or babysit barrels you’ll join us the first Tuesday of every month in 2012. Email YFR@NapaFarmBureau.org for more information.

Crab Season, Championship Games & Carneros Chardonnay

Early on in the 2011/2012 Dungeness crab season, fishermen were deadlocked over price leaving the fate of hundreds of thousands of pounds of crab in the hands of those sitting at the negotiation table – negotiating the standard price to be paid on the docks for one pound of crab.

It got me thinking, even then, way back in November about the concept and how a situation would play out like that if  Growers got together and held the price on Chardonnay in 2012. Or any other varietal for that matter. Could we stand together on a price in years of shortage or excess and hold firm? Crab fisherman held the line on just 50 cents a pound. Could we hold the line on $500 a ton?

Yeah, yeah. I know. Price fixing is illegal. But sharing information is not.

I don’t think any Carneros Chardonnay grapes should be sold to a still wine program for less than $2,700/ton in 2012. I’m signing 10T purchase agreements for $3,000/ton. If a winery wants to drop fruit for any reason it’s $12,000/acre contract. If you’re happy to let me be The Farmer you can have your tonnage contract and I’m going to crop it at 4T/acre, but you are more than welcome to chop away at your investment all you want. Bring your shears. I’ll let you take a whack.

I don’t think any Carneros Pinot Noir grapes should be sold to a still wine program for less than $3,000/ton in 2012. I’m signing purchase agreements starting at $3,200/ton.

By the way, for the sake of honesty, I’m still shoveling myself out of 3+ years of operating in the red. But this year my Chardonnay is going into some of Napa’s most prestigious $30+ bottle programs. My Old Vine Martini Clone Pinot Noir can’t be found anywhere else outside of the Thomson Ranch. Those are my prices. Those are my reasons.

I’ll be at the 2012 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium next week and you can pin me up against the wall and raise holy hell about my prices. Or wag your finger at me for my bruising and battering of associations over the course of the past three years. Or really, for that matter, challenge me about any of the rest of what I’ve got to say. But I assure you my prices are fair and every winemaker I have ever sold to or currently do sell to will vouch for the fact that I’ve got the chops to stand behind what I say, what I write and the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot that I grow.

If you’re a Grower and would like me to sell your fruit at fair prices or list it on the Thomson VIneyards website email me at ThomsonVineyards@gmail.com. If you’re a winery I have fruit which isn’t spoken for along with 25 acres available to plant. And God ‘aint creating any more Carneros land. You know my email address.

Until then, I’ll be pumping water from the Carneros creek to the reservoir and coordinating an all you can eat Dungeness Crab and Carneros Chardonnay Feast in honor of the 49ers being serious contenders at this Sunday’s NCF Championship game; alongside my newest recruits helping resurrect the Carneros GROWERS Alliance – neighbors and farmers The Robledos who also have 100 Tons of Chardonnay and 100 Tons of Pinot Noir available in 2012 and I guarantee will cost you more than just a penny.

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | November 24, 2011

Post Harvest Edition: Three Things We Are Thankful For

Harvest Wrap Ups and 2011 Vintage Reviews are so passe. Instead I thought I’d just call your attention to three things The Farmer and I are thankful for this holiday season and leave it at that.

1. Above Average Winery Partners

I often detail the less than respectable dealings and interactions I have with some wineries and winemakers in this Valley in order to convey actual terms on which some believe it’s acceptable to operate and do business around here.

In the case of the wineries below, I think it’s important they are recognized as entities who actually acknowledge and pay respect to The Farmer’s massive contribution to making wine. Because remember, without The Farmer fruit wouldn’t be able to get to The Winemaker and what would that leave you to drink on Thanksgiving?

Within the week of harvesting nearly 15 tons of Chardonnay for Frank Family Vineyard I received a very nice phone call from the winery’s administrative offices in Calistoga. “Hello, Jennifer, this is so and so at Frank Family and I’m just wondering where to send payment to for the fruit you delivered? If you can call me back with your address, I’d be happy to get this payment in the mail to you.” I nearly rear ended the grape delivery truck in front of me on Highway 29 listening to the voicemail. What!?! A winery, calling me, to see where to, what!?! Pay me. The juice hadn’t even gone through fermentation.

I’m completing invoices this week, but Growers are currently financing hundreds of wineries statewide while paying their own harvest bills, fending off the creditors. So it means a lot to us, when a check arrives without having to do the administrative action on our part of invoicing. I mean after all, we already wrote the contract stating the payment terms. Little did I know MBA actually stood for Mediocre Business Admin work when I footed that bill.

This week, another winery, Kopriva sent their check along for 50 percent payment. Sans invoice. The even better part of this particular story, is that winemaker Myles Monigle hasn’t even finished stirring the lees of his Robert Young Clone 17 Chardonnay from Thomson Vineyards Block 7. But, being a farmer himself, Myles realized someone’s gotta pay the harvest crews. Thank You Myles – truly – from The Farmer.

2. Neighborly Growers

The Farmer goes out of his way, often, to help those out who need it. He’s currently obsessing over one ZD Wines Cellar Master’s residential electrical service panel which needs a bit of work before he can give Chevy Chase a run for his money and really get to work on his holiday lighting plan…

This year there were some very neighborly growers who returned The Farmer’s favors and we appreciate it.

Outside of the media frenzy detailing the especially successful but incredibly challenging season we all had (get a new line); the association spin doctors heralding quality quality quality (please someone shoot me); the hanger on-ers taking me to task via social media for telling the truth (like I’ve said before, you can’t handle the truth); and those of you who even in November continue to recount the wet spring followed by the disease pressured fall (okay, okay, we get it already) what really went on during the 2011 vintage was equivalent to playing a heated game of Tetris.

Stacks and stacks of macrobins laid around for weeks during September with no one to use them. Yet pieces like the Napa Register report by AVA projected that harvest was moving right. along. Then, within and instant, Growers couldn’t find a macrobin to save their lives. I assembled macrobins for one 10 ton Chardonnay pick from Servin Lopez Vineyard Management, Nunez Vineyard Management, Thomson Vineyards, and three rag tag bins I have no idea where they came from marked “XVM” maybe a White Crane Winery bin was in the mix too…

When I wasn’t busy fighting for macrobins, I was busy fighting for chemicals. Ag Unlimited and Napa Valley Ag both sent guys south to the Central Valley to pick up the last of the PHD fungicide. The last pallets of the stuff in the state. Napa Valley Ag had it one minute and in the time it took me to drive up Silverado Trail to pick it up…it was gone. Thankfully my right hand woman (who drives a mean tracklayer) Lucia Hossfeld of Hossfeld Vineyards was with, we were looking fly and somehow managed to sweet talk the Napa Valley Ag  PCAs out of one of the ten bottles I needed to get started spraying. PCAs Andy Wilson (Ag Unlimited) and JR Beatty (Napa Valley Ag), let us know where we can send your Christmas Bonuses…

Speaking of spraying, and along the lines of neighborly relations, I’m very thankful to Walsh Vineyard Management for taking the time to install a spray tank fill station mid vineyard between the Newton Vineyard property line and ours. I mean they weren’t busy either, so they put a guy and one shovel out there installing a faucet while they too waited…and waited…to harvest Chardonnay.

Just one pick ran amiss this year, allowing me, to make up the difference by producing Thomson Vineyard’s first licensed and bonded vintage of Chardonnay and Merlot with the help and assistance of neighborly growers like the Robledo Brothers at Robledo Family Wines.

Finally, Abel Tirado and Mark Greenspan of Advanced Viticulture. Pinophiles, Abel has some delicious Sonoma Pinot Noir available in 2012 and he was generous enough to let me borrow his bin trailers during harvest when we ran short on those too. I sold a truckload of Abel’s Pinot to Mark who was working on behalf of his client David Bruce Winery. We did the deal via Twitter which brings my total tonnage sold via Twitter to 50 or 60 tons over the past two seasons.

The Growers' Broker

If you’re a Grower who is interested in my help in 2012 you can Tweet The Millennial Daughter @ThomsonVyrds. I welcome traditional phone calls and emails as well. Feel free to contact me. Brokers won’t sell your fruit for as much as another Grower can. They don’t have front line experience duking it out behind Laird’s processing facility for the very last macrobin!

3.  2011 Harvest…It’s OVER.

I allowed myself to listen to just one Christmas song yesterday. I’m currently downing my last pumpkin spice latte before transitioning to egg nog. Harbaugh vs Harbaugh football is on today. Alabama is already projected to be at the BCS game come January. Come February I plan to be in Argentina and Chile. Followed up by Tahoe spring skiing. ahem…it’s rumored to be another wet spring…

Meanwhile, The Farmer has spent the past few weeks hanging with the ladies. Racing around in my green Karmann Ghia passing it off as his own. Still working on learning his smartphone. Perusing the online sales at REI for a sick pair of all mountain skis. And searching for his taxes so we can put an offer in on the next chapter of Thomson Vineyards.

All of that aside…2011 Harvest is indeed OVER. And for that we’re very thankful!

To Be Continued and Happy Holidays,

The Farmer & Millennial Daughter

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | October 19, 2011

Would You Rather?

Remember that old game you played around the campfire, the reflection of firelight leaping off your buddies glowing faces, each armed with a Silver Bullet in one hand and an oozing chocolaty marsh mellowy s’more in the other  - Would You Rather…?

Today, we’re going to play that very game and turn up the heat on the Winemakers.

Would You Rather…

Be delivered 10.5 Tons of sporelating, hot pink, botrytis laden Carneros Chardonnay at 23 brix, 3.5 pH, .6 TA?

OR

Be delivered 10.5 Tons of clean, apples and tree fruit flavor Carneros Chardonnay at 21 brix, 3.5 pH, .6 TA?

It’s not become uncommon for me to receive emails, blog comments, have in-person interactions where people tell me I’m harsh. Opinionated. Feisty. It’s fine, judge away. To me, it’s either one or the other. So, I draw a line in the sand and I stand by it. So should the winemakers.

2011 Vintage: Stand By Your Decision

While the media debates if the 2011 vintage will make or break “California Style” wine programs due to an abnormally cool season, low yields, even lower alcohol…

And the marketing arms of this industry fire back that every single cluster is perfect and every single day is beautiful in the Napa Valley…

Growers are actually in the field – labor, macrobins and sleep are all scarce and they are sweating bullets with sauna like temperatures and 45-80% humidity; canopy that appears to be healthy but brix that haven’t moved off the line in 2 weeks; and most are mixing up potassium nutrients in spray tanks coupled with their favorite fungicide (Switch, Elevate, PHD, Vanguard) to stimulate what little is left in the vines energy stores and kill the developing gray and green mold on most red varietals…all of this on October 19 as morning temperatures dip into the cool 50s.

You Winemakers are being forced to make decisions. All of you need to stand by them and the Growers who are delivering you the cleanest, highest brix, fruit we possibly can.

So I ask you, Would You Rather? Backstory and third-party certified ETS lab results to follow…

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | September 14, 2011

Free Agent Fruit

It's Good Not To Be Mr. Irrelevant

Yields are so significantly down that every wine grape broker has called me in the last 72 hours. Grower Reps are stalking me. Homewinemakers and microcrush facilities have begun begging me to spare just 250 lbs or a half ton here or there.

Having heard that we may have Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot still available they’ve resorted to multiple voicemails followed up by text messages.

I’ve pretty much started exiting our driveway with one eye on my review mirror looking for an unmarked car.

I’ve also been sporting my “Free Agent” t shirt on an every other day basis it’s getting so absurd…and yes, I’ve taken to calling them back asking just who’s the client and what exactly their price point is before I reveal just how much tonnage I have left. If you don’t hit the magic number, the call is over. Speak to my agent if you don’t believe it.

A month ago a winemaker walked his contracted block, of three years, and asked how the market was. I said I was completely sold out, but not to worry his fruit resided safely on the reserve list.

“So others are waiving dollars in your face?” he asked.

“Not dollars. Hundreds of dollars.” I answered.

“I guess that’s the beauty of the evergreen contract.” he retorted.

I asked multiple winemakers, multiple times, to sign evergreen contracts in 2009. Just one was a smart enough to sign his name to one. Many Growers are now strongly advising other Growers to not sign an evergreen this year, or the next. I agree and have cut off all long term discussions for the duration.

I’ve spoken to multiple Grower Reps over the course of the last three years attempting to gain recognition for the fact that their Carneros flagship brand would be better marketed if their large publicly held company could tout that they continue to source fruit from Old Carneros Family Farmers.  I’ve even gone so far as to point out to those large publicly held companies that Mr. Mondavi’s Chardonnay program and brand would be better represented if they revisited the idea of sourcing fruit from where it all began…

Guess which two Grower Reps have been texting and calling to see if I have any Chardonnay grapes for sale?

Nevertheless prices are well on their way to being up, way up. And God isn’t creating anymore Carneros land. One of those two Grower Reps has been instructed by HQ to buy up every berry he can find of Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and he’s offering above district 4 average price. He even entered into a preliminary discussion with me related to a planting contract for 30 acres two weeks ago.

A founding member of the newly formed Napa Valley Mexican-American Vintners Association (NVMAVA) told me last Thursday over Mimosas at The Freemont Diner that if their deal goes through in China, they’ll be completely out of the grape growing business and fully into the wine business, significantly depleting some of the major Champagne houses contracted fruit sources…

Some Grower out of Wildhorse Valley posted Chardonnay two months ago for $3,450/T. I thought that was a bit extreme for an appellation with little to no prestige. As far as I can tell though, the fruit is gone.

And then we come to just what price fruit from a “prestigious” AVA can command. In years such as this, whatever price the Grower is smart enough to set it at.

2011 Prestigious Thomson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay

One would think that as brokerages themselves release market updates, wine industry publications run the headline time and again read by countless winemakers, the message would be getting through: markets are on fire, prices skyrocketing up, and inventories severely depleted.

Since clearly it’s not…with my Free Agent t shirt on and Monday Night Football queued up, let me lay it out for you:

  • Those late to the game: There is NO fruit left. Should have had your scouts out earlier, got the go ahead to bid higher, or told your GM to loosen the purse strings before the other teams could get there.
  • Buyers who played pricing games in a sellers market would be well served revisiting the basic principles of Supply and Demand…or just get familiar with the draft process and what it means to entertain a Free Agent. Maybe watch Jerry McGuire. Something. Anything to understand how this all works.
  • If you’re a commercial grower don’t sign an evergreen this year, talk to your neighbors about what the bottom line price should be for anyone’s fruit coming out of your prestigious AVA and don’t back away from that line. Once you’ve found a team with a climate you can stand and a price that designates your true worth then consider signing a contract. Maybe hosting talks focused on discussing the matter could be a job for all the growers organizations out there. Just a suggestion.
  • If you’re a lifestyle grower with 2 acres of Cab – in years such as this your fruit is just as valuable as the commercial growers. Get enough 2 acres blocks of Cab together and next thing you know you’ve got a truckload of fruit. Don’t mistake the fact though that your vineyard management company is probably not as invested in selling your fruit for as much as you would or as much as you could get were you a larger grower and harvesting 2 acres is a pain in the ass for labor crews, therefore when the three weeks of heat coming our way momentarily actually get here – you will 32 out of 32 times be prioritized lower on the list.
  • See above. This is how dire the straits are at the moment. And know that I am currently working out my pricing on second crop fruit. You should be too.
  • Anyone in the industry who continues to herald how low the yields are, but how excited the winemakers are about the quality of fruit should revisit the old saying, “the best vintage a winemaker ever made is the vintage he’s selling right now.” Then get out of your office and into the game. You’re going to work and pay for any of the fruit you find still remaining out there. Two. Or Three times that of what you paid in 2009.
  • If you were one of the lucky ones to get a slice of prestigious AVA fruit with a good grower this year try to hold onto them until they will discuss a long term contract. Cases of beer on the doorstep after harvest, invitations to harvest and holiday parties, are both good starts.
  • If you weren’t one of the lucky ones. There’s no better time than now to take a good look at yourself in your rear view mirror and ask yourself, “Who’s Your Farmer?” Then get out your checkbook in time for next year’s draft which will begin early. As in January early.

No, Seriously Who's Your Farmer?

Call me, text me, stalk me. I may tell you what I have left…

It’s good to be a Free Agent.

UPDATE: As of this morning a mid sized lot of Thomson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay came back online when a new GM told a Free Agent Winemaker that he wasn’t interested in having a high end Chardonnay in his high end program dedicated to Cabernet. Although an evergreen contract had been put in place earlier this year, I’ve gotten the go ahead to sell it, and am now entertaining offers.

UPDATE: As of 9/19/2011 9:45 a.m. Another Carneros Old Family Farmer has between 55-65 tons of well cared for Pinot Noir available. I take no commission and my only objective is to get good grower’s good fruit, sold at good prices. Text your price per ton offer to 707.227.8745

Posted by: Thomson Vineyards | August 24, 2011

That Cordon Isn’t Dead It’s Sleeping

A winery sent me a Direct Message yesterday and requested that I remove a Tweet when I Retweeted a photo of their Old Vine Pinot Noir that included their own comments about how pretty the red leaves are.

I  had Retweeted the photo with links to UC Extension information on leafroll, eutypa, and virus affected vineyards.

Lovely or Deadly? Virus Affected Vineyard

Early on in my tenure as The Millennial Daughter the Old Farmer pointed out one of my photos and then pointed to a cordon which had failed to put out any leaf area early in the season. He cautioned me to not be posting photos of dead cordons. While I respect his position and others position to “spin” the truth into a positive, I’m no spin doctor.

Old Vines should have a cordon or two which have given up 36 years into their life. Rot and mildew have been persistent issues for growers for two seasons now, forcing them to put more inputs into their production, more material out to prevent or kill fungus, driving costs up, driving organic credibility down. Growers report the abundance of powdery mildew this year from Mendocino to the San Joaquin Valley. Bunch rot is also becoming and issue. Winemakers report that in some vineyards they have to walk three vines before spotting a cluster. A well known Carneros Pinot grower is down by 40%. Extreme mountain fruit will potentially either be full of rot or fail to ripen in 2011 without aggressive thinning. And when your yields are significantly down, there’s not much left to “thin”.

Anyhow, there is an extremely short list of individuals on Twitter regularly Tweeting about actual vineyard conditions, data related to soil/weather/fruit, and attempting to educate rather than market to consumers and the industry at large.

Most of you on Twitter are caught up bitching about receiving sub par wine samples (Oh! Heaven forbid you actually just re gift a bottle to an appreciative friend);  or those of you crying about not being invited to the “In-Crowds Wine Blogger Conference After Parties” (Crash their parties – what are they gonna’ do start a fist fight?) ; or worse, as a winery, you’ve left an outsourced marketing firm or even worse you’ve left your own in-house marketing/front desk/or anyone else who spends 90% of their time behind a computer and not in the vineyard or production facility to push out 20% off codes and tell tourists how lucky they are to have been in your tasting rooms over the weekend. If MailChimp is Tweeting for you. I hope you bring nothing but rotten fruit in this year.

So who’s Tweeting valuable, can’t miss vineyard and winegrape info?

Here’s my unabridged, unabashed, uberauthentic list:

@SJVGrapes

UCCE Farm Advisor
San Joaquin Valley
SJV Viticulture production issues: varieties, pests and diseases, etc.

@srbeckley

Steven Beckley
Woodland, CA
I cover issues of interest to the agricultural input industries and consultants. Including both conventional and organic.

@grapetweets

Matthew Fidelibus
Parlier, California
Extension Specialist in Department of Viticulture and Enology, UC Davis. Extending Viticulture Information to Raisin, Table, and Wine Grape Growers.

@eViticulture

eViticulture
Stillwater, OK
eViticulture is a group of viticulture Extension specialists around the US.

Honorable mentions: @vineyardpro, @doctor_vit@wineisgud4u (who is obsessed with Tweeting out LWP on a particular block of Sonoma Cab)

 

*If I missed someone who is regularly Tweeting valuable information, send me a Tweet @ThomsonVyrds. I selectively follow back because I have limited patience for following Twitter accounts who whine about how terrible it is to drink free wine, project their Klout score/Wine Influence Twitter rating, or continue to do review after review of the cherry jubilee essence you got off the wine you paired alongside the Pacific Coast Grass Fed Bison Burger, side of truffle fries, even though Asimov told you guys to grow a pair, get out into the vineyards and start writing about W. I. N. E. At least that’s what I heard he told you – because I’m a Wine Grower and not a Wine Blogger and was busy at that time Tweeting out Leaf Water Potential (LWP) readings to winery clients who follow the ThomsonVyrds Twitter stream and to others in the industry who are interested in gauging vineyard conditions in the Carneros Region of the North Coast. Last I checked I’m a close to a buck fifty over a thousand followers and they aren’t all industry people. They are C.O.N.S.U.M.E.R.S Anyhow, maybe I’ll crash your party in Oregon next year. Maybe.

As far as the leafroll, eutypa and the red leaves out there. You can read up about the topic and others related to winegrapes and vineyards at this comprehensive resource compiled by the UC Integrated Viticulture program.  And while selecting good sources of information to direct readers to I came across this UC Viticulture Research doing none other than absolutely tarnishing To-Kalon by calling its heritage clone 31 Mondavi Cabernet out as a “virus affected vineyard”. The audacity. Whether it was split on the Mondavi or Beckstoffer side I don’t know. But you can bet that if it’s on Andy’s side he is selling that fruit at a 30% markup over the block next to it which is most likely a replant showing not a single sign of pretty red leaves.

2011 Old Vine Martini Pinot Noir

In 2009 I attended a seminar dedicated to the split of winemakers who opt out of working with virus affected vineyards and those who actually prefer to work with virus affected vines saying that they produce more complex, interesting wines. And if you are a winemaker who subscribes to the theory that Old Vines, 30 years plus, are favorable over just established vines and vineyards it’s mighty difficult to locate a vineyard that isn’t affected by something.

We’ve got red leaves at Thomson Vineyards. They are some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Carneros. They produce some pretty damn good Pinots and don’t seem to be hindering ripening, flavor, or winemakers selling their finished products in the marketplace.

Because after all, to consumers, that’s their favorite part of the visit to Napa Valley. Snapping photo after photo of beautiful orange and red hillsides of rolling  vineyards and posting it to their Twitter and Facebook feeds, tagging the winery as they go.

If you have no idea what DM, Retweet (officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary this week), or tagging means you can take my crash course here.

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