Demand fueling a push to plant more wine grapes in SLO County

jlynem@thetribunenews.comJune 26, 2013 

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.


Demand for high-quality California wine grapes among foreign and domestic consumers is fueling the planting of new vines at San Luis Obispo County vineyards.

“There are some large plantings going on, larger than we’ve seen in a number of years,” said John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery near Modesto, which sells vines to North County wine-grape growers. “There’s definitely going to be additional expansion.”

Large plantings happened in the 1990s, but then growers pulled back for about 10 years, he said.

“Now, we’ve got to catch up and replace vineyards that are turning 20 years old,” said Duarte, noting that much of the planting will be cabernet sauvignon.

Although no one knows for sure how many acres of North County wine-grapes could be planted in the near future, those familiar with the local wine industry say estimates range from 3,000 to 8,000 acres of new vines.

It’s unclear who will be planting as growers and the nurseries that sell to them are often reluctant to disclose that information.  San Luis Obispo County agriculture officials also do not track vineyard plantings outside of pesticide use, and there are no land-use permitting requirements for crop production.
But several wine-grape growers have plans in the works.

Among them is Justin Vineyards & Winery, which expects to plant 600 acres of the 900 vineyard acres it purchased in the North County. The majority of those acres, 78 percent, will be focused on cabernet sauvignon. The 600 acres of new vineyards will take about three to five years to reach maturity, and up to seven to produce grapes ready for bottling. There are no plans yet for the remaining 300 acres, according to an article published in The Tribune in February.

Sextant Winery, considered a small to medium-size operation with about 80 acres in Paso Robles, is planting about 10,000 new vines – cabernet sauvignon – on roughly eight acres, “a fairly small project compared to what the other guys are doing,” said winemaker Steven Martell.
“If you put it in perspective, some of the bigger wineries are doing some fairly big planting projects these days,” he said. “In the last year or two, I’ve seen a lot of big projects going in versus the previous five years. The economy is turning around and sales are going up.”

Brothers Georges and Daniel Daou, who purchased 112 acres of the old Hoffman Mountain Ranch Winery property in western Paso Robles earlier this year, recently planted 38 additional acres on their property. The brothers already have 60 acres of grapes planted on the 100 acres they bought in 2007 for their winery in the Adelaida district.

With the North County grappling with a dwindling groundwater basin, Daniel Daou said they are “very keen on water use.” They practice deficit irrigation and use a pressure bomb, which allows growers to measure the amount of water plants are using.

“I’ve managed the vineyard very closely, and we’ve minimized the usage of water, virtually to the point where the vines will shut down,” he said.

The decision to put in new vines is an individual one, driven in part by whether a grower has enough quality water to support additional acreage, Duarte said. Last week, one grower in Paso Robles canceled an upcoming order because there was too much boron and salt in the well water.

“That (water) is a big question mark that Paso Robles growers are sorting out,” Duarte said.

 “They are going deeper and deeper to find it.” They will also have to come up with solutions and farming practices that require less water for their vines, he said.

For wine-grape growers, the future will depend on how much risk they are willing to take, he said.

“I think the market demand for the quality of wine grapes that Paso produces is absolutely in place,” he said. “There are economic opportunities for growers that can produce high quality wines. Whether they have the water resources to do that is another question.”



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