Better Grape Acreage Data Needed

Allied Grape Growers report more California vineyard acres than state

by Jane Firstenfeld
Source: Allied Grape Growers
Fresno, Calif.—Grapevines are being planted in California vineyards based on faulty information, according to Nat DiBuduo, president/CEO of Allied Grape Growers (AGG), which represents nearly 600 grower-members throughout California.

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.

Posted on 06.19.2014 - 12:16:50 PST
Great work by all of you at AGG. Clearly we cannot use as valid the official government data.

Posted on 06.19.2014 - 08:09:53 PST
For the last 10-11 years I have been tracking the differences in the reports of grape acreage in California according to both CDFA and to the reports of the individual county Ag Commissioners. The differences, especially in the last 2 years, have been dramatic.

From 2003 to 2012 the average difference between the number of acres reported by CDFA (county by county) and the number of acres reported by the local county ag commishes has been 9% (this is even more surprising when you consider that many of the counties only list bearing acres, not total acres which is what CDFA gives).

In 2011 the difference was 14% and in 2012 the difference was 25%. In 2012 CDFA showed 764,886 acres and the locals' totals showed 953,187 acres for a difference of 188,301 acres

The bulk of the differences show up in the Central Valley with very little difference in the North and Central Coasts

Patrick W Fegan, Director

Posted on 06.30.2014 - 07:53:12 PST
In New York, annual NASS production surveys for NY provide a very unhelpful breakdown in annual production by 'Concord', 'Niagara' and 'Other'. We have been asking them for years to break it out by Concord/Niagara/Other labrusca, hybrid, V. vinifera cultivars. No luck so far.

Even the 5 year acreage surveys (last one in 2012) leave a large category with mixed hybrid and vinifera as 'other'.

It would be great if NASS NY could capture a little more detail in their acreage estimates.

Tim Martinson
New York Viticulture