The Balance of the Season
By Doug Fabbioli
In my 42 years in the wine industry, I have seen plenty of ups and downs in the harvest and crush balance. Wineries have only so much space but they have needs for certain grapes to make their wines, have their own grapes to bring in, and often have long-term contracts to buy grapes as well. Independent growers have their fruit coming ripe and hope that the winemaker’s promise to purchase the grapes holds up through the season. (Some wineries have not been good players in the past on this point.)
Sales fluctuate for a winery through its lifespan, and the grapes planted 20 years ago may not be what it needs now, or it may not need as much of it. It may offer that fruit to another winery and can even do a little “horse trading” so that each winery gets the grape it needs. This year, because there was no wide-spread frost damage in the spring, there seems to be more fruit on the vines that will be coming available at harvest. I am seeing a number of wineries posting their excess fruit on the various forums for the industry. We all need to find space for these grapes without throwing off our inventory balance.
In a good year when a winery has more fruit growing on its own vines, there may not be as much of a need to purchase from another grower. This is really the challenge of being an independent grower, and each wine region has a lot of them. You want a winery committed to taking your fruit year after year, but the winery you work with may not need your fruit, or may not have the space to process it. I have talked with some growers who would hold off on taking payment for the fruit until after delivery, in some cases even waiting until the wine is sold. Grapes cannot hold once they are harvested for more than a day or two. If the grapes are processed into wine, that wine can be held and sold later on the bulk market, but there is a critical time element with the ripe fruit.
Sometimes extra grapes may go into a new product. This is how we started making our Paco Rojo, one of our best selling wines. I had extra Chambourcin one year and my wife suggested making a red with a little sweetness. Our Una Pera happened the same way. (She’s smart, I guess I am too because I listen to her.) A new wine may pull sales from the old wines, though, throwing off the balance once again. There are a lot of moving parts in this industry and it is important to watch sales trends and market movements in order to have enough of the right product at the right time. But as a grape grower, you are somewhat limited to what you have: your vines are of a certain variety and usually will last about 30 years. Ripping out the vines and starting over with new varietals is costly in money and especially in time. So the ground and the grape may stay the same, but the style of the wine may have to change to fit the new trends.
So where does the Virginia Wine industry sit this harvest? Well, I think we have to sell more wine to make more space! We know there will be challenging years ahead from time to time, but this harvest looks like it will be big and of high quality. You can help out too: visit your favorite wineries and take an extra bottle or two (or more!) home with you when you do to help us make space. We will continue to make great wines, grow top quality grapes, and share our views with you. It’s all part of the balance!