USDA Grants Benefit California Wine

Vintner and grower groups in El Dorado, Lake and Sonoma counties receive 2012 awards

by Jon Tourney
Monterey County Vintners Growers Association Rhonda Motil board food agriculture USDA specialty crop block grant
Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association executive director Rhonda Motil told the California Board of Food & Agriculture last week how Monterey growers and wineries benefitted from a marketing project funded by the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
Sacramento, Calif.—In spite of uncertainty about future agriculture programs due to Congressional failure to pass the 2012 Farm Bill, the California State Board of Food and Agriculture’s October meeting in Sacramento focused on the success of California projects that have benefitted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP.)

The meeting also highlighted the Oct. 1 announcement by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) that California has received $17 million in 2012 grant awards for 68 projects statewide. The program has funded several regional wine association marketing projects in recent years, and it awarded 2012 funds for new grower/vintner projects in El Dorado, Lake and Sonoma counties.

CDFA staff work year-round with the SCBGP to solicit potential grant applicants, evaluate project proposals, assist with applications and assist grant recipients with audit and administrative requirements as liaisons with USDA. California annually receives $16 million to $18 million of the $55 million available from USDA, more than any state, and from 2008-12 received a total of $66 million for 272 grant projects.

Projects range in duration from eight to 33 months and receive funds ranging from $50,000 to $400,000. Funding areas include: marketing—agriculture education/outreach, international trade, market enhancement and promotion; research—plant health and pest challenges, environmental concerns and conservation, and food safety; and nutrition—food security and healthy eating. Grants are awarded primarily to nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and local, state and federal government agencies.

California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross explained a reason the Board meeting examined the issue: “It’s important to understand the value of the Farm Bill and its ability to assist ag organizations, in California and nationwide, to increase the market and competitiveness of specialty crops for the benefit of producers and consumers.”

Expressing concern about the legislative climate at the federal level, she said, “All these programs are in jeopardy because they stopped on Sept. 30 with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill, because Congress did not take action on the one piece of legislation this year with bipartisan support.” Some ag officials are still optimistic Congress will take up and pass the 2012 Farm Bill in the “lame duck” session after the November election and before the end of the year.

Although the 2012 funding grants announced last week have been approved and funds are available, the ability of USDA to administer the funds and projects is uncertain due to the recent end of the 2008 Farm Bill. A related Farm Bill program, the Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI), administered through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, faces similar uncertainty. SCRI has funded wine industry research projects in recent years supported by the National Grape & Wine Initiative.

Monterey vintners report success
Rhonda Motil, executive director of the nonprofit Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association (MCVGA), was invited to address the Board as one of several successful beneficiaries of the SCBGP under the 2008 Farm Bill. She presented an overview and the outcomes of the project, “Improving Long-Term Sales and Competitiveness of Monterey Area Winegrape Growers.”

The project began in fall 2009 with an award of $199,000 and continued through June 2012. MCVGA was able to leverage additional support during the project period amounting to $300,000 in local contributions and in-kind donations. Motil said the motivation and goal of the project was to raise awareness of Monterey County as a viticultural region, increase the amount of grapes going into Monterey American Viticultural Area (AVA) labeled wines, increase grape and wine prices, promote Monterey wine sales and increase visitor traffic to area tasting rooms. 

The project developed maps of the nine sub-AVAs in Monterey County and plotted locations of the 175 vineyards belonging to grower members. The maps went into a print brochure and are online for long-term use at montereywines.org. Motil said, “These maps are used by growers and producers during sales presentations, and they have helped growers negotiate higher grape prices with accompanying descriptions of climatic factors and soil types based on vineyard location.”

The website was developed into an online database with member grower and producer profiles and is searchable by AVA, variety and vineyard for grape buyers—and searchable for consumers/visitors to locate tasting rooms based on AVA, varietals available, tours and other visitor options.

The project produced four wines (110 cases each) of the “Monterey Signature Series” from the 2010 vintage to highlight the county’s two main varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from four AVAs with assistance from 12 growers and winemakers who are profiled in accompanying print materials. The wines and brochures introduce trade and media throughout the country to Monterey wines.

Citing project results, Motil said grape prices for the top five red and top five white varieties increased during the project period, and a member survey indicated that the amount of grapes going into AVA labeled wines increased 10%.

Survey results also showed that from 2009 to 2011, there was a 23% increase among visitors to Monterey County who also sought out wineries and tasting rooms to visit during their trip. Overall traffic to county tasting rooms increased 40% in two years. A project goal was to increase website traffic by 25%, but the actual increase was almost 40%. In addition, the Signature Wine Series project and promotion has resulted in coverage in 280 media outlets to date.

2012 grant recipients
Three California county wine trade organizations received 2012 SCBGP awards for marketing activities to build brand awareness and sales.

The El Dorado Winery Association (EDWA) was awarded $179,000 for an education and public relations campaign to educate media, trade and consumers about the wines and 90 wineries of the El Dorado AVA, within the Sierra Foothills AVA. The campaign is intended to: strengthen marketing data and identify market growth potential for EDWA wines; enhance the EDWA website to communicate the uniqueness of the AVA’s high elevation and complex topographic terroir; create awareness of the area’s wine industry with a year-round communications plan, a social media platform and media and wine buyer trips to the AVA; present EDWA brand-building seminars and tastings for trade and media in key markets, and leverage marketing with tourism partners to grow local traffic and sales of EDWA wines.

The Lake County Winegrape Commission was awarded $80,405 to partner with the advocacy organization “Summertime in a Glass” (SIAG) to promote Sauvignon Blanc. SIAG hopes to raise awareness and educate consumers and the wine industry through educational activities, public relations and information to promote the varietal in the marketplace. SIAG plans to assist growers, wineries and industry partners to share knowledge and best practices through workshops, and web-based and social media. SIAG will target key audiences and pursue media coverage with a branded campaign.

The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission was awarded $378,881 for a “Branding Sonoma County Wines” marketing campaign. Sonoma County wines draw price premiums due to quality, and market research shows that 68% of wine consumers associate Sonoma with wine quality. All wines labeled with a Sonoma County sub-AVA are now required to include “Sonoma County” on the label, providing a new opportunity to market and promote this valued name uniformly and to build brand value. The campaign will include local/regional/national promotional events, online and print ads, conducting on- and off-premise sales programs and creating a new online wine locator for consumers to find and purchase wines directly.

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