Grapevine shortage squeezes wineries

  • Jorge Daniel vacuums up pieces of shredded coconut husk from boxes of budding grapevines ready for planting in a greenhouse filled with vines at Novavine in Santa Rosa, California on Monday, April 9, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

In a row of greenhouses off Sonoma Highway, young grapevines are nestled in tiny pots stretching for what seems like miles.

And it is still not enough to meet demand from California's resurgent wine industry, which finds itself facing an unusual problem: a shortage of grapevines.

"The industry has never been like this since we've been in business," said Jay Jensen, CEO of Novavine, a Santa Rosa-based grapevine nursery that was founded in 1998.

The situation is hampering plans by North Coast wineries and growers to expand their vineyards and quench consumers' growing thirst for California wine.

Nurseries are largely sold out of vines to plant this year, and are running out of plants that will be available in 2013.

"It's a problem across the state," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "People want to plant vineyards because the market is strong, and there just aren't vines to plant ... therefore it will delay any significant increase in vineyard acres."

The challenge is a welcome one in an industry that was hit hard by the recession, as wine drinkers traded down to cheaper options and wineries offered premium bottles at discounted prices. Planting vineyards, a costly enterprise, took a back seat as wineries and grape growers alike struggled to make ends meet.

"Last year there was nobody offering any contracts, so there was no planting being done to speak of," Frey said. "There just hasn't been demand since probably 2000 for planting new acres."

Now, demand for California wine is growing, and analysts say there aren't enough grapes to keep up with the pace.

"No one could predict when that demand would finally pick up," said Joe Ciatti, partner at Zepponi & Co., a winery brokerage firm. "Even in a tough economy, California wine grew at 5 or 6 percent in sales, and that was enough to put us over the edge."

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