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DtC Is Lifeblood of Wineries, Banker Says
Industry executive warns that wineries would close without direct-to-consumer sales; meanwhile, Napa residents question new projects
Results of the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Conditions Survey.
Napa Valley, Calif.—Most Napa wineries will not survive without an increasing emphasis on direct-to-consumer sales, according to Rob McMillan, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division.

Tasting Wine From PD-Resistant Grapes
Cultivar selections move forward in field trials; eye toward commercial release
Winemakers and viticulturists evaluate wines made from grape cultivars bred to be resistant to Pierce’s disease. Advanced selections from the study are up to 97% Vitis vinifera.

Davis, Calif.—A small group of commercial winemakers and viticulturists recently sampled grapes and wines made from the 2014 harvest of Pierce’s disease (PD)-resistant wine grape cultivars at the University of California, Davis. With Vitis vinifera parentage and quality, these advanced selections of PD-resistant cultivars represent some of the most promising wine grapes produced from the breeding program of Dr. Andy Walker, whose research at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology is funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture Pierce’s Disease/Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter (GWSS) Board.

Small quantities of wine (less than 5 gallons of each cultivar) were produced from UC Davis field trial vines harvested in August. The wines were made by Walker’s assistant grape breeder Alan Tenscher, a former Napa Valley winemaker, and UC Davis teaching and research winemaker Chik Brenneman. These very young wines—four reds and three whites—and grape clusters harvested from 17 PD-resistant cultivars, were tasted by Douglas Fletcher, vice president of winemaking for Terlato Wine Group; Paul Skinner, who produces Sequum Wines and owns the viticulture consulting company TerraSpase; Jan Krupp of Stagecoach Vineyards in Napa Valley; and viticulturist Daniel Bosch of Constellation Wine Brands. The group also visited the UC Davis field trial vineyard and sampled grapes off the vines.

A goal of the tasting was to obtain input on preferred wine and grape lots. These preferences will play a role in deciding which cultivars to advance toward commercial introduction. For comparison, the UC Davis researchers also have field vines planted from two PD-resistant hybrids considered high quality where they are grown in southern and eastern states: the white wine grape Blanc du Bois and the red wine grape Lenoir, or Black Spanish.  

Breeding PD-resistant vines
Walker and his lab have been traditionally breeding wine grape varieties of Vitis vinifera with the native American species Vitis arizonica, which carries PD-resistance genes, over five generations of crosses to progressively increase the percentage of vinifera parentage and characteristics to 97% with the fifth and final cross. Each generation carries resistance genes. The first 97% vines were produced in 2009, and the first wines from field trials of these were produced in 2011. Walker said it’s easier to breed and produce red cultivars than white cultivars; so red cultivars dominate the selections to date.

UC Davis staff have produced and evaluated wines from earlier generations for the past several years, and some have been presented at industry tastings in California. Walker explained, “At the 75% vinifera level, wines are still very hybrid-like and can have strong vegetal character. At the 87% level, they’re better and not quite as astringent and bitter, and at the 94% level they show vinifera character.” Berry and juice chemistry of harvested fruit is being analyzed and compiled with assistance from ETS Laboratories.  

Terlato Winemaker Doug Fletcher has tasted grapes from the UC Davis vineyard for the past three vintages and sampled wines from two recent vintages. He has been impressed with the quality of the selections at both the 94% and 97% vinifera levels compared to French-American hybrids that are more commonly grown and produced outside of California.

FPS readies selections for commercial release
In 2013, Walker advanced 10 PD-resistant cultivars to UC Davis Foundation Plant Services (FPS); these included both 94% and 97% vinifera parentage of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, along with three PD-resistant rootstocks. Although these selections are going through FPS testing and certification, Walker said not all selections advanced to FPS (currently or in the future) will ultimately be released for commercial use. Walker’s lab continues to produce and evaluate selections for PD resistance, and he will release those that show the greatest resistance based on the absence of PD bacteria (Xylella fastidiosa) within inoculated plants that go through greenhouse tests.

In a previous tasting, Terlato winemaker Doug Fletcher said he and others preferred a wine made from a white PD-resistant cultivar with Chardonnay parentage to a wine made from a pure Chardonnay selection grown at UC Davis and produced for comparison. Of the red varieties in the recent tasting, Fletcher said he preferred those bred with Cabernet Sauvignon parentage to those with Petite Sirah.

Walker noted that UC requires a patent on new cultivars developed by the university prior to commercial release from FPS. He said, “My goal for this winter is to patent and release two varieties from FPS at the 97% vinifera level—one red and one white PD-resistant cultivar.”

As part of another research project, Walker is involved with similarly breeding cultivars with genes for powdery mildew resistance. His future goal is to breed cultivars that have resistance to both PD and powdery mildew.

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Wine Industry Metrics
Off-Premise Sales » Month   12 Months  
September 2014 $575 million
$7,743 million
September 2013 $550 million $7,311 million
Direct-to-Consumer Shipments » Month   12 Months  
September 2014 $163 million
$1,708 million
September 2013 $141 million $1,538 million
Winery Job Index » Month   12 Months  
September 2014 166
September 2013 145 192
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