Sierra Foothills Wine Association Planned

Marketing, soil and pest issues addressed at Foothill Grape Day

by Jon Tourney
Beth Jones John Zentner
Beth Jones of Lava Cap Winery, left, president of the El Dorado Winery Association, and John Zentner of Zentner Vineyard in Fairplay, right, president of the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association, at Foothill Grape Day.
Shingle Springs, Calif. -- After years of marketing and promoting grapes and wines through more localized county and sub-appellation associations, producers within the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA) are planning to pool resources and collectively market the products and attributes of the entire Foothills appellation.

Speaking at Foothill Grape Day in El Dorado County June 3, Beth Jones of Lava Cap Winery, president of the El Dorado Winery Association (EDWA), said her group has met with the Amador Vintners Association and the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance "to create a new venture to collaborate and rebuild interest in the Sierra Foothills appellation." Initial plans are to reach out to the remaining Foothill counties, form an organizational structure for the AVA, and create a website with maps and information for consumers and visitors.

The groups also are considering a trade and public Sierra Foothills tasting event outside the appellation in 2011, possibly in the San Francisco Bay Area. The new organization would not eliminate existing associations, but it would enhance the ability to introduce consumers to Foothill wines, and help consumers discover and visit the AVA.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is one of the largest in California, covering parts of eight counties including (from north to south) Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne and Mariposa. The region's diverse site conditions, with different climates, soils, and topography, make it one of the more diverse growing regions. Sixty different winegrape varieties are grown in El Dorado County alone.

Grape Day addresses marketing, viticulture

The annual Foothill Grape Day featured both marketing and viticultural technical sessions. Lynn Wunderlich, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Amador and El Dorado counties, moderated and helped organize the event at Sogno Winery, in conjunction with the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association(EDWGGA). The majority of attendees were from El Dorado and Amador counties, but Calaveras and Tuolumne counties were also represented.

During the panel discussion "Marketing Grapes in Tough Times," Jones said today's difficult economic times have helped bring people together. EDWA now is working more closely with EDWGGA; they are looking at new ways to market the Foothill region. She urged growers to participate in the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program, (a self-assessment workshop is scheduled in Placerville on June 21) and to move their vineyards toward sustainable practices, and potentially certification, as another positive aspect to marketing the Foothills. "This improves the reputation of the appellation, and helps us build upon the positive story we have of producing premium wines with mountain-grown fruit and artisan winemaking processes," Jones said.

El Dorado grower Ron Mansfield of Goldbud Farms has grown winegrapes and tree fruit since 1980, and he now manages 160 acres specializing in Rhône varieties. He listed five special characteristics of the Foothill grapegrowing region:
1. The region has a diverse combination of soils, climates, slopes, aspects and elevations, and it has abundant sunshine.
2. The region can grow a large number of grape varieties, and it offers a laboratory of different sites and conditions to evaluate new varieties.
3. The Foothill grapegrowing community is nicely balanced with a mix of established and experienced growers along with new growers who are willing to try new things and explore new sites.
4. The region and its wines are getting more media attention.
5. The majority of the region's wines are sold directly to the consumer, which builds customer loyalty and enables immediate customer feedback on preferred varieties and wine quality.

Mansfield advised growers to have a marketing plan, even if their grapes are currently under contract. "Marketing is a year-round process. Never pass up an opportunity to discuss your vineyard and your growing region," he said. This involves understanding and discussing the technical details of the site and the viticultural practices employed. "No two Foothill vineyards are alike, and a grower with a marketing plan knows why his vineyard is unique," Mansfield summarized.  
Toby O'Geen
Toby O'Geen, UC Davis soil scientist

Soil data online
To help understand the diverse Sierra Foothills soil types, Cooperative Extension soil specialist Toby O'Geen of the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources discussed the California online soil survey resource, a valuable tool growers in any location can use for information on soil types, their properties and characteristics. Available at casoilresource.lawr.udcavis.edu/soilsurvey, soil information can be found by location by entering a street address, ZIP code or geographic coordinates.

O'Geen said the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) hard copy soil survey information and maps used for many years are now out of print, so they must now be accessed online. Online tools are used to zoom in on more detailed soil survey info and locations, and can interface with other resources such as Google Earth and Google Maps.

Data includes general soil information such as soil taxonomy, land classification, soil suitability ratings, and hydraulic and erosion ratings. More detailed information includes NRCS lab data for specific sampling sites that includes soil depth profiles, organic matter content, percent clay, percent sand, potassium levels, pH, and electrical conductivity. O'Geen said it is important for grapegrowers to have soil information for effective site planning and management, because soil survey data indicates conditions for rooting depth, drainage, nutrient supply and water holding capacity.

O'Geen said a new "soil app" just became available this year, free to any iPhone user. "This is used in conjunction with the GPS receiver on your iPhone in the field to tell you what type of soil you're standing on," he explained. This also provides access to the same information on the iPhone that is available from the soil resource website.

O'Geen said Sierra Foothill soils have been mapped more generally than soils in locations like the Central Valley, because they weren't expected to be used as extensively for agriculture. He also advised, "Always verify what the soil survey says with an onsite investigation, as it's not an exact science."

Gill's mealybug update
Lynn Wunderlich
Lynn Wunderlich, extension farm advisor for El Dorado and Amador Counties, discussed the Gill's mealybug at Foothill Grape Day.
Wunderlich gave an update on the Gill's mealybug (Ferrisia gilli) infestation in El Dorado County, now found in about 300 acres of grapes and at least 12 different vineyard properties. Gill's mealybug has been seen in California since the late 1990s and is more commonly found in ornamental landscape plants and in pistachio orchards. It was found in grapes for the first time in 2003 in a backyard vineyard in El Dorado County, and spread to commercial vineyards in 2004. It was also found in a Lake County vineyard in 2009.

It's larger than other mealybug species found in California. It is not considered as harmful as the vine mealybug, because it does not reproduce as fast. It completes two generations during one year in the Foothills. Wunderlich said, "Its populations build slowly, but over time, it requires treatments to prevent or reduce damage."

Like other mealybugs, it can damage grape clusters, causing honeydew and opening berries to rot, leaving grapes unmarketable. Grapevine leafroll virus (GLRV) is found in Foothill vineyards, and since other mealybug species are known to transmit GLRV, this is another concern. Wunderlich said, "We still don't know if Gill's mealybug transmits leafroll, but it seems likely, since other mealybug species do."

In 2009, Wunderlich conducted insecticide trials in infested vineyards with Applaud, Assail and Movento. Each material provided more control than in untreated grapes. Although Movento worked best, its registration has been withdrawn, and it is not available this year  Assail had the next best results in the trial, followed closely by Applaud. This year, Wunderlich will continue insecticide trials with Applaud, Assail and Clutch.

Organic materials will also be trialed -- JMS Organic Stylet Oil and Ecotech -- some in combination with applications for powdery mildew. Applications should target the mealybug's crawler stage, before it enters the grape cluster. Wunderlich advised, "Now is the time of year to look for Gill's mealybug, where it can be found on the base of shoots and young spurs. We have no tools to trap these insects in the vineyard: You have to actually look for them on the vines." As with other mealybugs, they can be spread by work crews, transport of infested grapes and pomace, and likely by birds and wildlife.
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