It’s always challenging to pick the top news of a year, but here are my candidates for the biggest stories in the local wine business in 2015:

1. Drought. The drought generated huge discussion, and many grapegrowers and wineries took significant steps to make best use of the water available. Ultimately, the drought had little impact on most Napa Valley growers because of a steady aquifer and adequate rain. Some growers even realized that they may have been overwatering vines in the past.

2. Small crop. Apparently, mostly unrelated to the drought but rather due to unfavorable conditions during blooming and perhaps the aftermath of three bountiful harvests, yields for most grape varieties were down significantly. As with the drought, however, things were better in Napa Valley than in many parts of California.

3. Controversy over wineries and vineyards. Public outcry let to an intense discussion of wineries, their production and visitors and events. A committee of various interests made recommendations to the county, but nothing is resolved yet. Few expect huge changes. Likewise, environmental groups have fought new vineyards, particularly the proposed 350 acres of vineyards in the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch in the Vaca range.

4. Gallo buys the Ranch winery. The world’s largest wine company, E. &. J. Gallo, which already owned Louis Martini and William Hill Wineries here, bought the Ranch custom winery in St. Helena, once a major Sutter Home facility. Gallo also bought additional vineyard acreage in Pope Valley. In related news, Joe Wagner sold his Meiomi brand to Constellation for $315 million.

5. Diageo sells iconic brands to Treasury. Liquor and Guinness beer giant Diageo sold most of its wine brands to Treasury, the Australian-based owner of Beringer and other Napa wineries for $552 million. It didn’t sell the land or wineries, however, as it had already sold them in a lease-back deal, letting Treasury acquire iconic Beaulieu, Sterling, Acacia, Provenance and other local brands at a bargain price.

6. Pierce’s disease outbreak. Although Napa County has been able to keep out the dreaded glassy-winged sharpshooter, a mild winter seems to have encouraged widespread Pierce’s disease spread by the native blue-green sharpshooter.

7. Red blotch. An old virus recently identified has caused widespread damage to vines, leaving them with brilliant colors similar to that of well-known viruses.

8. Local leaders die. Vintner and philanthropist Joe Phelps, who pioneered a local architecture for wineries, introduced the first high-end proprietary red blend and popularized Rhône varieties, died. We also lost environmental leader and vintner Volker Eisele.

9. Red blends. The fastest-growing wines in the U.S. have been nontraditional blends of red grapes, often slightly sweet. This has been a boon to growers stuck with less-popular varieties such as merlot, syrah and zinfandel. Trinchero’s Menage a Trois was a pioneer and remains a leader.

10. Vintner Robert Dahl killed Emad Tawfilis, an investor in his winery and brewery, and himself, after Dahl experienced numerous legal and business setbacks.

Leave your comments online if you’d like to nominate other stories — or disagree.

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Contact Paul Franson at paul@paulfranson.com.


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