Better Grape Acreage Data Needed
Allied Grape Growers report more California vineyard acres than state
He has expressed concern for several years that wineries and grapegrowers rely too much on the annual California Grape Acreage Report issued by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), which in turn relies on voluntary reporting of bearing and nonbearing acreage, broken down by zones and grape varieties. DiBuduo said, “NASS does a great job, but the acreage is underreported.”
This, he said, gives growers a skewed idea of what varieties are in shortage, and it can have serious effects on the industry in future seasons. To mitigate this, for the past five years, AGG has conducted its own survey using voluntary information gathered from different sources: grapevine nurseries.
“We probably capture (details about) 95% of the grapevines sold to California vineyards,” DiBuduo said. When NASS releases its mandatory crush report, AGG vice president Jeff Bitter “sits down and spends a week” parsing its details.
Running the numbers
Some, DiBuduo said, strain credibility: The numbers for Muscat of Alexandria, for instance, when dividing reported acres by tons crushed, would have that grape variety yielding 30 tons per acre. “Not possible!” DiBuduo exclaimed.
Discrepancies in non-bearing acreage (new vines for the first three growing seasons) are of particular concern, because anticipated bearing acres mean new fruit that will come to market. For 2013 NASS reported 45,000 non-bearing acres, but AGG’s estimate for the same period was 75,000, and DiBuduo says planting trends indicate non-bearing acreage in California will climb to 90,000 this year.
Similarly, NASS estimated total California grape acreage at 525,000 last year, meanwhile AGG’s estimate was 545,000 acres. According to DiBuduo, a report from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation showed estimates even higher than AGG’s figures.
The dangers of bad data
“If people use the NASS report to invest in the wine business and plant new vineyards, this adds to the snowball effect of going from a grape shortage (or balance) to a grape overage,” Bitter said in the June issue of The Crush, newsletter for the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG).
“People use the NASS report as if it’s gospel, and if you look at it in comparison with growth trends in California wine sales, you can be led to believe that vineyards are not being planted fast enough to keep up with wine market growth and demand,” Bitter said.
Although the AGG leadership would like to see mandated government reporting of bearing and non-bearing acres, it doesn’t seem likely. The mandatory crush report funds both the crush report and the acreage reports via a state assessment of 10 cents per ton crushed.
Ron Lopp, communications manager at CAWG, stated that although the NASS acreage report has been a matter of discussion among the CAWG board, the organization is not currently considering policy changes. “We haven’t formalized any proposed actions to improve the accuracy of information,” he said. “We haven’t taken a hard look yet.”
In the meantime, DiBuduo urged, “People need to take our information into consideration. They need to talk to their winery customers.
“I do not recommend speculative planting,” he advised. “I’m not saying to stop planting, just do smart planting. I don’t think wineries are offering as many planting contracts as before. Be careful.”
DiBuduo pointed out that in recent years, “Wineries responded to demand by bringing in imported wines, especially Moscato and Pinot Grigio. Now, as we have those varieties planted, they don’t have to go offshore.” But he observed that indicators show that by 2017, there might be a crop that exceeds demand.
Realistic numbers about tons per acre can also be financially helpful to growers. “I got a phone call from a local tax assessor. He was going to use the NASS report in his assessment. It showed 16 tons per acre. I gave him my figures, which dropped the yield to 11 tons per acre. “Because we were able to utilize better information, this was beneficial” to the landowner, DiBuduo said.