It may have been a sour year for the national economy, but bottle it up and 2009 will probably taste better on reflection.
Up and down the Central Coast, wineries are frantically bringing grapes in for the crush by the truckload and, by and large, the feedback seems to be that it’s going to be a good year.
At Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard in Los Olivos, winemaker Blair Fox looked up and grinned only momentarily as he continued hand-sorting Pinot Noir grapes by the basketload before they passed through a de-stemming machine to go on to be crushed. “The grapes look good,” he said.
Unlike last year, when temperatures fluctuated drastically throughout the growing season, this year was mild and temperate, Fred Holloway, winemaker at Justin Vineyard & Winery in Paso Robles said. “The quality of these grapes is going to be very intense,” he said. “They’re going to be very flavorful.”
Just down the road at Firestone Vineyard, now part of the Foley Family Wines group, winemaker Paul Warson agreed that the grapes are some of the best he’s seen in recent years. “I’m expecting good things from this year,” he said.
In Santa Barbara County, Pinot Grigio grapes are flooding in, said Shayne Kline, general manager at Wild Horse Winery & Vineyeards in Templeton, while his part of the region is enjoying a bit of a later harvest. Wild Horse gets grapes from both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county vineyards.
“There really is a lot of excitement this time of year for everyone,” Kline said – and not just for busy winemakers, but for visitors who often schedule late-summer trips around harvest time.
Chris Taranto, communications manager of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, a member organization for the region’s wineries and vineyards, said that he’s been hearing good things from his part of the wine world.
“All accounts at this point in time are that it’s up from last year,” Taranto said. “And the quality is also showing to be incredible this year.”
Tasting room sales
Harvest time, an attraction for winery visitors, also wraps up the summer tourist season when the area tasting rooms are typically flooded with visitors.
Because they’re so heavily reliant on area tourism in their tasting rooms, wineries were expecting to take a bit of a dip this year, Taranto said.
But Tracy Dauterman, sales and marketing coordinator at Justin Vineyards & Winery, said tasting room visits there were actually up a little this year but that the average customer coming through is spending a little less than before.
“The bodies were there this year, it was busy, but they may have been spending less,” Taranto agreed.
Wholesale sales have taken a slight dip as well, Dauterman said.
Like other businesses, “a lot of wineries are looking at flat as the new up,” Taranto said. “They’re happy if they held their own this year.”
Kline said Wild Horse was off about 15 percent compared to a normal year in tasting rooms sales this year but that they’re seeing a lot more people from Northern California coming into Central Coast wine country than before.
Winery owners and winemakers all agree that consumers have scaled down and that it’s now bottles in the lower to mid-range price categories that fare the best.
“The price range that we’re seeing do the best right now is the $12.99 to $24.99 range,” Taranto said.
Even as the fifth anniversary of the film rolls in, “Sideways,” the Oscar-winning comedic drama about a couple of middle-aged men who tour Santa Barbara wine country in search of Pinot Noir and women, still has a profound impact on the county’s wineries. The film brought instant fame to more than a dozen wineries and restaurants in the county featured prominently in the film.
Fess Parker — where a key scene in the film that involves Miles, the lead character, having a breakdown in the tasting room — still sees a residual effect from the film, Fox said. Firestone, although not named in the film, is also featured when the characters take a walk through its large barrel room.
“What the film really did was get Los Angeles to realize that it has great wine country in its backyard,” Fox explained. “It made that area realize it doesn’t have to drive to Napa to get great wine — it’s just waiting a few hours drive up the coast.”