Is the Decline of California as a Wine Region Upon Us?

desert wineJon Bonné takes to the pages of Punch to lament the passing of the current generation of California winemakers and sees little hope for the future. Using the occasion of the increasingly corporate Duckhorn’s purchase of the storied Calera Winery, he writes:

While the financial motives all make sense, it felt like a final signpost for an important generation of pioneers, much like last year’s retirement of Ridge’s Paul Draper. And it resurfaced an uncertainty that I’ve been feeling for a while: that the initial rush of energy that defined the New California has passed. For the first time in a long time, I’m struggling to see how California wine’s next chapter will take shape.

The great California winemaking pioneers are reaching retirement age and their kids are often interested in other pursuits. The only thing that financially makes sense is to sell to Big Wine. But while you might expect these retirements to create room for new talent to emerge, Bonné isn’t seeing it. The problem of course is land prices.

This brings us, inevitably, to the most complicated of topics in California wine: owning land, which is also the most important, in that any generation of winemakers ultimately needs to control their own vines if they want to do their greatest work. In California, that dream is probably farther out of reach than ever—not only in Napa, where top vineyards are now approaching $400,000 per acre, but also in places like Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, and even in Lodi, where the ratio of land value to wine prices isn’t that appealing. (“The land values here are so disheartening,” Petroski continues. “It sucks the soul out of you as a young winemaker.”)

Young winemakers can’t afford to set up shop. Only the mega-rich looking for a new toy can buy in, and that isn’t always a prescription for good wine or innovative approaches.

Bonné sees little to cheer about, but the solution it seems to me is obvious. Go north, go south, go east. There is absolutely no reason to think we’ve already discovered the best locations to grow wine grapes. Emerging regions such as Southern Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Texas, even the Midwest have cheap land and developing wine cultures. With climate change already transforming traditional grape-growing regions, and the burgeoning ability to breed new grape varietals or clone existing varietals adapted to local conditions, we should probably give up our fixed ideas about what grows where.

What these new wine regions need is talent and experience which the California refugees can supply.

So leave California to the dilettantes and the survivors who already have a stake. If you’re a young winemaker desert and prairie wine might be in your future.

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