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The Crush of the 1990s Grape Rush

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gambling on the grape, California growers are carving large chunks of range land from San Diego to Sacramento into miniature Napa Valleys, transforming century-old cattle stamping grounds into rolling vineyards with wine-tasting houses and bed-and-breakfast inns.

In corners of the state once thought inhospitable to premium wine grape growing, tens of thousands of acres of young merlots, zinfandels, syrahs, cabernets and chardonnays now march out in green perfection across grazing lands and old vegetable fields. Many still await their first harvest. And more vineyards are right behind them.

Emboldened by a batch of recent studies confirming the health benefits of the crushed grape, fermented and otherwise, California’s wine country has busted out of its North Coast domain in a big way.

The grape rush has descended on such far-flung places as Temecula, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Soledad, Riverdale and Lodi. Leading the stampede are some barons of California wine--Mondavi, Sutter Home, Beringer, Gallo and Kendall-Jackson.

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But the vineyard fever also has seized former house painter Bob Krivacek and a host of other L.A. exiles chucking good-paying jobs for 12-hour days atop a tractor and the crapshoot of the fall crush.

“Some harvests a small guy like me makes money, some harvests you lose,” said Krivacek, who grows cabernet sauvignon grapes in Paso Robles. “This isn’t about striking it rich. It’s about a whole different lifestyle. I used to drive two hours in traffic to a job site. I now watch plants grow.”

Water witches and soil testers in tow, they are drawn to these new wine hotbeds by the same lures: cheaper land prices, recognition that these regions can grow their own fine grapes, soil disease problems in the North Coast and the public’s growing thirst for quality wine that has led to two straight years of record grape prices.

A few weekends ago, in the snug valley along California 46 that is San Luis Obispo County’s answer to Napa and Sonoma, 10,000 wine lovers sampled the region’s award-winning Syrah and feasted on gourmet dishes at 35 wineries set against the foothills.

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“The demand for wine coming from our region is outrageous and we can’t fill it,” said July Ackerman of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Assn. “Many of our wineries are having to tell distributors, ‘We can give you only so much. There’s just not enough wine.’ ”

But that’s about to change. “So many new vineyards are going in that we expect to double our acreage in the next few years,” she said. “Vineyards are mushrooming.”

70,000 Acres Have Gone to the Grape

Like Paso Robles, many of the new wine hamlets actually were discovered by wineries and grape growers in an earlier boom in the 1970s. Their initial plantings were mostly modest, though, and stayed that way for years.

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But over the past 18 months, more than 70,000 acres of pastureland, broccoli, sugar beet and cotton fields have been converted into trellised rows of wine grapes, according to local agricultural officials, grape growers and nursery owners. In addition, 20,000 acres of old vineyards--both table and wine grapes--have been replaced by currently more popular wine grape varieties such as chardonnay and merlot, industry experts say.

So many new vineyards are being planted along the Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley that nurseries cannot keep up. Farmers groom their land only to find themselves on long waiting lists for vines and the metal stakes, cross arms and wires to train them.

“We’re sold out of new vines for 1998 and 1999 and I’m taking orders for the year 2002, if you can believe it,” said Rich Kunde, the owner of Sonoma Grape Vines in Santa Rosa. “The big orders aren’t coming in from Napa and Sonoma but from Monterey and the San Joaquin Valley.

“In 25 years of selling vines, it has never been like this.”

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The rush to plant more vineyards has sparked a debate over what some growers and wineries see as an inevitable oversupply in the next few years. Skeptics fear a crash similar to the one in the mid-1980s in which wine sales plummeted and vineyards were taken over by banks and insurance companies or simply abandoned and plowed under.

Some respected wineries such as Fetzer in Mendocino County have sworn off planting new vineyards, certain that a glut is around the corner. But others are confident that the big Chardonnay, Merlot and Zinfandel machines will keep on rolling. They see wine shedding its snobbish dress and gaining further acceptance as a dietary complement in the fight against heart disease and possibly cancer.

“The $64,000 question is when all these new vines start bearing fruit and the wine pipeline flows again after a few years running dry, will the consumer take up the increase?” said Richard Smith, owner of Paraiso Spring Vineyards in the Salinas Valley.

“There is no doubt in my mind that some growers are going to suffer in a glut. Somebody’s going to get burned. Hopefully, it won’t be me.”

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No region has converted its cattle land to wine fields with more gusto than Lodi, the farm town that straddles California 99 south of Sacramento and is still trying to live down the 1960s Creedence Clearwater Revival rock refrain “stuck in Lodi, again.”

Thousands of metal stakes stand with military precision in the flat rich loam of the Mokelumne River basin, waiting for new vines and drip irrigation lines. Farmers figure that by 1998, 20,000 more acres of varietals will have been added to the 46,000 acres of vineyards already pleating the landscape.

A cool breeze blows across the nearby San Joaquin Delta and furnishes the deep colors and crisp acids that the big boys of California wine adore. It is this unusual microclimate--95 degrees on a summer day and 55 at night--that lured some of the state’s earliest grape growers to the Lodi-Woodbridge area in the 1850s.

But for the past half-century, this land has toiled in the shadow of its puffed up neighbors to the west--Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The North Coast’s most esteemed wineries have made a habit of buying Lodi fruit and mixing it with their own but making sure they didn’t use more than 15% in any given bottle. As long as they could say that a vintage was 85% theirs, the North Coast labels never had to give Lodi credit.

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“Lodi used to be considered jug wine country and the North Coast looked down their premium noses at us,” said Mark Chandler of the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Grape Commission. “But over the past decade, Napa and Sonoma wineries have come here in growing numbers because they recognize the quality of our grapes. We were the best-kept secret in the business.”

No longer. Mondavi, an early believer in Lodi, is adding a tourist center to its winery on the outskirts of town. Rutherford Vineyards has produced a Chardonnay with Lodi grapes and a Lodi label. Kenwood has done the same with a Zinfandel.

The huge gnarled trunks of Lodi’s signature flame tokay, the flavor-packed table grape also used to make cheap champagne and brandy, have all but vanished. For the last two years, Lodi’s 600-odd growers have produced more tons of chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet and merlot grapes than any other region in the country--about 20% of California’s total crop.

This is more crush than Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino combined, and they have done it while trying to cut back on pesticides and nurturing environmentally friendly fields where good bugs devour the bad ones.

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Vying to Become the Next Napa Valley

While much of Lodi’s juice still flows to North Coast wineries for quality blend, more local growers are making and selling their own premium wines under a Lodi-Woodbridge appellation. There is a tour map of the area’s half-dozen boutique wineries and talk of fancy restaurants and wine tasting rooms--a Napa Valley without the crowds and hot air balloons.

“Any time you put Lodi on the bottle, you’re selling the whole region,” said Lance Randolph, the owner of Peirano Estate Vineyards whose award-winning Zinfandel comes from the stout vines his great-grandfather planted more than 100 years ago. “I think people are ready for a new wine country in addition to the North Coast.”

In the foothills 12 miles east of Lodi, a land of meadow larks and coyotes and some of the reddest, rockiest soil around, the biggest wine grape development in the state is taking shape on the old Borden cattle ranch. Those staking claim on 6,000 acres of hillside include Sutter Home, Delicato Winery, Hancock insurance company, a heart surgeon, a college professor and family farmer Richard Watts.

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“My son and I are the only hands-on farmers of the bunch,” said Watts, 55, a onetime college linebacker who long ago swapped his coach’s whistle for a straw cowboy hat, jeans and a big “Lodi” belt buckle. “I hate competing against insurance companies. A million here, a million there. It’s weekend money for them. For me, I’ve got $2 million invested in this mountain. The stakes can’t be any higher.”

He said he would have never dared such a leap if not for back-to-back flush years on his 400 acres of wine grapes closer to town and a guaranteed contract from a large winery to buy his crop for 14 years. His new hillside vineyard is planted in syrah, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and merlot. “Red soil for red wine,” he says.

One section remained fallow for the longest time. It had nothing to do with financing, Watts said. He couldn’t find a nursery with enough disease-resistant vines and metal cross arms to supply him. “The big guys couldn’t get them either. It’s gotten that crazy.”

He drove his new Dodge pickup to the hilltop and gazed down on the sweep of the old ranch, sere range land now half-stitched in a quilt of greens--one patch light and translucent, the other a shade darker signaling a different variety. He turned aside questions about a quarrel with environmentalists concerned over the small creatures living in vernal pools on the land, a legal debate that at one point halted part of the development.

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“It’s kind of staggering to see it all stretch out. All new cropland. I think it’s really exciting and we hope to grow some good quality grapes. But I know we can’t keep planting like we’ve been planting. Every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to be a wine grape grower now.”

Like Lodi, the Monterey Coast provided grapes for the generic red and white wine boom two decades ago and for that it suffered badly in the hard times that followed. “I probably plowed under more pinot noir than anyone in America,” said Kelly McFarland, a Salinas Valley grower who supplies grapes to 20 North Coast wineries.

“We survived when a lot of good guys didn’t, and I’m tickled to death to see this new boom. We’re leaner and smarter about quality and that’s going to help us through any glut. . . . I’ll go head-to-head against any grower, any place, any time.”

Along a 100-mile run of the Salinas River--from Monterey Bay south through the narrow, black-earth valley at the foot of the Coast Range--lettuce is still king in communities such as Gonzales, Soledad, Greenfield and King City.

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But in a trend unthinkable only five years ago, broccoli and bean fields along U.S. 101 are surrendering to wine grapes--chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot grigio in the cooler north and merlots and cabernet sauvignons in the hotter south end. On River Road, the local wine tasting trail, there are five tasting rooms and two more in the design stages.

“The ‘60s was Napa’s coming of age and the ‘80s was Sonoma’s coming of age,” said Smith, of Paraiso Springs Vineyards. “I see the turn-of-the-century as Monterey County’s time. The North Coast is already using our grapes. Now they’re going to use our address.”

As the Salinas River treks south, it snakes past Paso Robles and a winery with rolling vineyards that rivals anything in Napa or Sonoma, at least in scale. Modeled after a monastery in Italy, Arciero Estate Winery is the dream of Frank and Phil Arciero, Italian immigrants who moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s and became among the world’s largest concrete subcontractors and owners of an Indy car team. Frank Arciero drives from Irvine every Thursday to work at the winery and clearly relishes it.

But these days Paso Robles is attracting as many novice, 10- and 20-acre growers as behemoths. Many are fugitives from the urban rat race who say there is something deeply romantic and soul-satisfying about growing grapes in rural solitude. In a good year, when prices are up, you can clear $3,000 an acre.

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“Wine grape land is driving this market,” said real estate agent Bob Graham. “We get buyers coming from all over, regular folks from Los Angeles and the Bay Area wanting to get in on the trend.”

Life on the Land Draws Entrepreneurs

There is David Snowden, a San Gabriel Valley print shop manager whose wife, Nancy, got the idea of having a vineyard during a wine-tasting trip to the Solvang area. He followed up by reading a half-dozen books on planting and pruning. Eight years and four harvests later, he is adding 10 acres to his 18 acres of cabernet sauvignon.

“My wife got pregnant with twins right after we purchased the thing. She told me to go ahead and plant it anyway,” he said. “It was unbelievably hard work in the beginning, driving up from Los Angeles 30 weekends a year. And it’s been a real financial strain. We don’t take fancy trips to Vegas or Vail. Most of our vacations are on the farm. But it’s also been real satisfying. We now sell all our grapes to Kendall-Jackson.”

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And there are Jane and Dave Bender, computer wizards who took grape growing courses at UC Davis before selling their Victorian house in San Francisco and buying a century-old Mennonite farmhouse on safflower land west of Paso Robles. They planted 20 acres of merlot and zinfandel.

“It’s my wife and I on the tractor. It’s really fun. This is our child, this is our indulgence,” Bender said.

And there is Krivacek, a wildlife biologist who became a Los Angeles painting contractor and did the houses of basketball coach Pat Riley and actress Molly Ringwald before tackling the vagaries of hillside terracing and a wily old gopher chomping the roots of his tender cabernets.

“This gopher wouldn’t die. I’d drop a smoke bomb in his hole and he’d push it out and block the tunnel,” Krivacek said. “I now have 50 acres and our plan is to add 25 acres every three years. I’ve been very lucky and my neighbors here have been very helpful. I’ve learned by their mistakes.

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“That gopher was a real big one and smart, but I haven’t seen him this spring. I think old age got to him.”

To a smaller degree, Santa Barbara and San Diego counties are feeling their own grape boom. “It’s been dead quiet since the 1970s,” said Bob Drake, a Temecula grape grower and vineyard manager. “Now all of a sudden I’ve put in 25 to 30 acres and other farming companies and wineries are doing 40-acre pieces.”

It is the sunbaked San Joaquin Valley, the richest farm belt in the world, that remains the great unknown in the new wine equation. The 220-mile stretch from Modesto to Bakersfield is so vast that no one can say for sure the number of new vineyards, though nursery store owners and growers say the acreage is surely more than 20,000.

Many vineyards have been planted by big cotton, almond and vegetable growers hoping to diversify. The grapes, lacking the color and acids of the cooler regions, will probably be the first victim in a glut, wine industry experts say.

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“The San Joaquin Valley frankly scares me because we have no idea how many wine grapes have been planted over the past year,” said Barry Bedwell of Allied Grape Growers, a marketing cooperative of 550 state wine grape growers.

“It’s like a train speeding down the tracks and the bridge up ahead is out, but everyone is still shoveling coal into the boiler to go faster. It’s a wreck waiting to happen.’

Encouraging Studies on Health Effects

Some growers point to long-term contracts with wineries as protection in an overflow market. But others recall how during the last bust, the big wineries found all sorts of excuses to get out of contracts and reject grapes from the San Joaquin Valley.

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They worry about what will happen when the premium North Coast returns to full steam in the near future after having replanted more than half its vineyards because of the recent ravages of phylloxera, a root disease.

Optimists, however, recite the list of studies confirming the role of wine in good health and predict that the sky is the limit. After a decade of steady decline, they point out, consumption of table wine in the United States has grown by about 5% in each of the past three years.

“There’s going to be a big harvest this fall and that will cool off plantings for a bit,” said Jon Fredrikson, a wine industry analyst. “As for the long term, that’s a harder call. How much is too much with all this favorable health news and a strong export market?”

Glut or no glut, Luther Khachigian, 61, has already made his millions. The founder of Cal Western Nurseries near Visalia, he was a wealthy man before the grape rush. Today, 12 million vine sales later, he is a very wealthy man.

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In the wake of phylloxera, he perfected a three-step system that takes disease-resistant American root stock and grafts it with buds from premium European and Near Eastern varietals.

Khachigian explained all this as he drove his Mercedes through the dust of one of his many fields where skilled workers were making $17 an hour for successful grafts. “We had a freak frost in March and some of the grafts didn’t take,” he said. “We’re getting so many calls it’s impossible to fill orders on certain varieties.”

Betting on the crush, he, too, tore out 240 acres of table grapes and planted wine grapes. Last year he sold his merlot for $1,400 a ton, a near-record in these parts. He was giggling now, laughing at the lunacy that a second-rate merlot grown in the 105-degree heat of Visalia, of all places, could command such a price. He jokingly calls it his “1996 vintage bottled under his ‘Visalia’ label.”

“This whole wine grape thing is just crazy. It tickles me,” he said. “It just tickles me.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Great Grape Rush

California’s wine country is no longer contained to Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Statewide, new vineyards transforming old cattle grazing land and vegetable fields. A Times review shows an estimated 70,000 new acres of wine grapes planted over the past two years. Here are some regions where the new vineyards are concentrated. The acreage figures reflect both recent and near-future wine grape plantings.

Lodi and vicinity: 20,000 acres

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Merced to Bakersfield: 25,000 acres

Salinas and vicinity: 10,000 acres

Santa Maria area in Santa Barbara County: 5,000 acres

Wine Consumption

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California growers cite recent studies lauding the health benefits of wine and grape juice as one reason they are optimistic that wine consumption will increase.

* Current U.S. wine consumption per person per year: 1.6 gallons (U.S. beer consumption is 22.4 gallons of beer per person per year)

* 1996 sales of wine by California wineries: $5.2 billion, a 13% increase over 1995.

Sources: Grape growers, wineries, vintners associations, nurseries and county and state agriculture officials; Jon Fredrikson, wine industry analyst

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