When I first began reading about wine, it was always fun to come across statistics about “acres under vine” and things like that. Made me feel like I was present at the making of history, particularly as vineyards unrolled across the western coastal states like a carpet.
So when I started writing about wine, I made sure to find the sources of the stats and use ‘em too. One of my favorite topics was how fast Syrah was going into the ground (high double-digit percentage growth throughout the 1990s). Another was when California hit the half-million acre mark – and wine grapes glutted the American wine market.
After a while, though, the acreage thing started to get squishy. The best state statistics, for California anyway, had a sizable margin of error between how many bearing (i.e., productive) acres the grape growers reported and how many the state thought were really in production. In 2004, for example, the growers reported 93,431 acres of Chardonnay, but the state estimated the number was really touching 100,000. The gaps were similar for other grapes, too.
So I started looking at the statistics for how many tons of grapes were crushed for particular varieties. This was better, because either the ton’s crushed or it’s not. Someone might decide that an acre with two-year-old or three-year-old vines is not really “bearing” compared to how it will produce in a couple of years, but if she crushes the fruit and sells it, it’s counted.
From this new perspective, I started to notice new things. For example, Wine Spectator reported this month that Syrah acreage is up from 4200 acres in 1997 to roughly 18,000 acres now. (Oops! The state of California’s agricultural statistics service says the 1997 total was 1,256 acres, but never mind – the point about fast growth is still accurate.)
If you look at the tons crushed in recent years, however, you see a more interesting pattern.
The number of tons has started to level off even as the number of acres has continued to climb. In 2002, 11,909 acres of Syrah produced 101,541 tons of crushed grapes. A year later, in 2003, the bearing acreage was up 23%, to 14,680, but the tonnage was up only 8.5%, to 110,250. In 2004, acreage went up to 16,335 but the crush actually went down 9,000 tons.
In other words, in this three-year period Syrah in California dropped from 8.5 tons per acre to 7.5 tons per acre to 6.2 tons per acre.
What was going on? A few immediate explanations come to mind, most of them good. For one thing, it’s likely that the easy flat-land acres are already planted, and now the frontier for Syrah is in places like Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, Santa Rita Hills and other rugged places where it’s hard to get anything to bear more than four or five tons.
For another, people are now interested in Syrah as a stand-alone varietal wine. There are hundreds of Syrahs on the market now, with more to come. That means it has more value as a feature grape, so farmers don’t just pump it full of fertilizer and water to get all the weight they can. They farm it for what’s going into the bottle, and in this day and age that means getting the plant to produce fewer grapes of higher flavor intensity.
Now, a couple of caveats. In 2005, the state reported that the Syrah crush was 146,818.5 tons. That’s a huge leap upward. The acreage went up too, but not anywhere near as fast, so the tons-per-acre number jumped up to 8.2. Probably this means that a lot of baby vineyards (which the farmers reported as bearing in prior years) hit their stride and produced at their mature capacity. For any individual vineyard this is a one-time event, so we should not see another big aggregate leap like that one.
Also 2005 was a freakishly productive year for almost all grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay also saw their statewide tons per acre climb sharply compared to 2004: Cab climbed from 5.0 to 7.1, and Chardonnay went up almost as much, from 5.6 to 7.5 tons per acre.
Finally, some perspective. I (and other writers) have spilled a lot of ink talking about the New World style of Pinot Noir coming out of California’s coast areas. It’s super-intense, leaving our old notions of the grape in the dust (or should I say, in the rocks), and it’s super-expensive almost across the board.
Wanna guess why? Well, it starts with statistics.
In 2002, 2003, and 2004, Pinot Noir in California averaged three tons per acre. Even in wacko 2005, Pinot Noir was under four tons per acre statewide – less than half what Syrah put out. It’s why the price of Pinot Grapes is double or triple the rate for Syrah, and at least part of why most good Pinot Noir costs that much more in the bottle, too.
Doing the math on the grapes doesn’t make the wine better or cheaper, but at least it helps us understand what’s going on behind the scenes.
– Thom Elkjer
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