1. A picture-perfect year.
In Napa Valley, 2012 was a perfect year for growing wine grapes: Mild temperatures with no heat spikes, no rain during critical times including at harvest time, few bugs, fungus or other pests. With high quality and quantity, it’s a perfect year for growers and wineries and should lead to excellent wines and good prices for consumers.
2. The shortage that didn’t occur.
Observers predicted a shortage of grapes this year due to lack of planting in recent years, but growers left a few extra buds on the vines and dropped fewer clusters than usual, leading to a bounteous harvest. There’s no indication that the slightly greater yields harmed quality, either, though only time will tell.
3. Buying wine gets easier, albeit slowly.
It’s slowly getting easier to buy wine by mail as states reduce restrictions, and more and more states are killing blue laws and other rules that date to Prohibition. Direct sales to consumers from wineries reached $1.4 billion according to Wines & Vines, a leading trade magazine. This is especially important to Napa’s boutique wineries, that have trouble getting adequate distribution through traditional wholesalers – and make far more money from selling direct.
4. Bill Foley becomes big news in Napa Valley
After gobbling up wineries throughout California including Sebastiani, Firestone and Chalk Hill Wineries, mortgage executive Bill Foley edged closer to adding to his Napa portfolio of Merus, Altus and Kuleto by buying Lancaster in Sonoma’s Chalk Hill appellation and a majority share of vast Langtry/Guenoc in Lake County. Most significantly, he bought Sawyers Cellars in a high-visibility spot in Rutherford and quickly changed the name to Foley Johnson (Johnson being his wife’s maiden name) and has hinted at trying to significantly expand that brand’s size. Unlike another prominent newcomer, Jean Charles Boisset, Foley keeps a low profile.
5. Big wineries continue to gobble up small ones.
Foley isn’t a giant, but the true giants of the industry have been buying up wineries and wine brands up and down the west coast, as they already have here. In some cases, they were troubled companies. Gallo bought Washington state’s Columbia and Covey Run Wineries, its first move into that fast-rising wine producing state, as well as a large custom winery in San Luis Obispo County. Constellation Brands bought Pinot Noir-leader Mark West after recently buying Blackstone with its Merlot. Though none of these deals have involved Napa companies, they are likely to have an indirect impact.
6. Wineries buy vineyards and wineries to ensure supply
Looking at future shortages, many big and small wineries are buying vineyards, or even buying whole wineries for their vineyards. Gallo bought a 400-acre vineyard in Monterey County and the 2,000-acre Snow’s Lake Vineyard in rising star Lake County, while Bill Foley bought the vineyards of nearby Langtry estates that sits on 23,000 acres of land. The trend continues on a smaller — but still expensive — scale here, with Long Meadow Ranch buying property to create a 74-acre parcel in Rutherford. Also, Paul Hobbs Winery bought the 90-acre Tourmaline Vineyard in Coombsville east of Napa, the Sonoma’s first Napa Valley acquisition. Expect more deals to surface.
7. Moscato overtakes sauvignon blanc
Slightly sweet, intensely fruity muscat wines, generally called Moscato after the Italian name, have grown at an incredible pace, passing sauvignon blanc as the third most popular white wine (after chardonnay, by far the biggest, and pinot grigio, which itself leapfrogged sauvignon blanc a few years ago).
8. Red blend sales explode
Nontraditional blends of red grapes – typically zinfandel and less-popular merlot and syrah, even grenache, carignane and others — have become tremendously popular. Most are slightly sweet, anathema to wine snobs but delicious to fans. The local Trinchero family is a leader with Menage a Trois, as it is with moscatos.
9. Wineries proliferate
Although a few small wineries have been built in Napa Valley, it’s challenging to build a facility in most parts of the county, forcing more production to the corporate areas south of Napa. DFV is building out a large facility, and Don Sebastiani and Sons has renovated its large property there, joining other large produders. The facilities don’t necessarily crush grapes, but perform most other winemaking operations. Also, Eagle & Rose Winery in Pope Valley is now Whiskey River custom winery.
10. One stupid wine law falls; others await the axe
California finally joined the other 49 states in allowing sweepstakes and promotions to promote wine sales, so state residents can have a chance at the big Build a Better Burger prize offered by Sutter Home. Now it’s time to change the antique tier house laws that restrict shared ownership of wineries and restaurant.
Leave it to the market to help restaurateurs who have ownership in wineries decide how many and much of their wine they can include in the restaurants.
It’s not like there’s no competition for either eateries or wineries that would allow them to monopolize the business.
Email Paul Franson at email@example.com.