A Little Crush
Salinas Valley wine industry slow growing, despite vision for economic boom.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
In the time it’s taking to resolve litigation over the county’s 2010 General Plan, winemakers could have already fermented a couple of vintages of Monterey County’s signature Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The county’s vision for a winery corridor along River Road, a winding route along the Salinas River south of Salinas, has been slow to take shape, even though new policies set forth in the county’s 25-year General Plan are meant to encourage proliferation of small, artisanal winemaking operations.
In the two years since the plan was approved, streamlining permitting and reducing the minimum winery size from 40 acres to five, only two landowners have applied for subdivisions. Neither has business plans lined up.
That might be due to the recession, or to two lawsuits filed in November 2010 by LandWatch Monterey County and The Open Monterey Project, alleging the plan relies on inadequate environmental review.
But some winemakers say it’s about a deeper cultural and economic norm that’s defined the local wine industry. An estimated two-thirds of the county’s grapes are processed in other wine-growing areas, where they’re blended with other juice and left off the label.
“It bolsters a bunch of product wines that are just average,” says grower and vintner Steve Pessagno, whom Supervisor Simon Salinas appointed to the Planning Commission to help shepherd through the winery corridor plan. Pessagno’s boutique winery in Gonzales is one of the county’s few small-scale processors.
Most of the grapes that leave the county in wine form are processed at industrial crushing facilities like the one at Scheid Vineyards, producing wine at a bulk scale and low prices.
“WE LACK THAT ARTISAN CAPACITY THAT ADDS SIGNIFICANT VALUE TO GRAPES.”
“We created this ability to consume in massive quantities,” says Scheid COO Kurt Gollnick. “But we lack that artisan capacity that handles grapes in a way that adds significant value.”
Monterey County grapes bring in about a third of Napa County’s price per ton and half that of Sonoma’s, county crop reports show.
Luann Meador, a Ventana Vineyards founder who now farms about 100 acres of grapes near Soledad, says the costs of entry are just too high for most small-scale winemakers. An acre of grapes costs at least $40,000 to plant and takes years to pay for itself, unlike many high-value Salinas Valley crops that go from planting to harvest in a matter of weeks.
With 400-plus wineries, compared to about 35 in Monterey County, Napa is often portrayed as the holy grail of a successful wine and tourism industry buildout. But Meador says it’s not a worthwhile comparison: “We will never be another Napa.”
She sees the long and narrow geography, highway access and sparse population as indicators that Monterey County’s wine industry can safely grow without looking quite like quintessential wine country.
But even in Napa, there’s been some backlash to rapid growth. The minimum winery parcel there is 10 acres, with 160-acre minimums for some sensitive habitat. “The fear being that if you have 5-acre parcel sizes, you’re going to have little homesteads, not actual farming,” Napa County Planning Director Hillary Gitelman says.
That’s exactly what critics worry about along River Road, but subdivisions are slow going.
Dale Huss, general manager of River Road artichoke grower Sea Mist Farms, applied for a 5-acre subdivision permit in 2011. But he has no immediate plans to take the land out of crop production for a winery. “We’re just trying to get our ducks in a row,” he says.