Reality Bites: Winemakers Confront Political Circumstance
We often forget that at the end of the day, and the beginning and middle of the day for that matter, winemakers are farmers.
They are subject to the vicissitudes, not just of the weather, but global circumstances as well that are often out of their control. Their businesses and livelihoods are impacted, just like the rest of us, by climate change, financial machinations and other issues. In the past couple of weeks, that reality, one that often competes with the more romantic notions of a winemaker’s existence, has hit home on both sides of the wine world.
As I sat down to write a story about the 75th anniversary of the Napa Valley Vintners trade association, I was stymied in my attempts to reach winemakers in the Napa Valley as they were without power. As you likely know, Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility which provides power to much of Northern California — including the vast majority of vineyards and wineries in the region — cut the electric power to over 1 million customers in an effort to forestall the potential for transmission lines to start fires.
Given the history, the cataclysmic infernos that have raged the past two years in Napa and Sonoma counties, and the deadly Camp Fire fire that was sparked by a 99-year-old transmission line, killing 86 people and wiping the community of Paradise off the map, it has been hard to fault PG&E for their strategy. And most of those affected are patient, having lived through the recent history of destruction.
But there is no denying that the remedy has been hard for vintners to swallow. It is, after all, the tail end of the harvest season and much of the winemaking process requires electricity in this day and age. There has been a need to adjust and improvise, with wineries scrambling to find generators and fuel to power sorting tables and crushers, cooling equipment for tanks and fermenters, and basics like lights so that winemaking activities can continue after dark.
And that doesn’t even take into account the impact on visitors to Napa during one of the busiest times of the year. Stores, restaurants and businesses were shuttered and traffic lights out throughout the valley, causing traffic jams. This at a time when Napa is a major tourist destination for those looking to buy wine and spend money.
And the problem looks to be ongoing based upon the weather. This is the time of year when the wind blows strong and with low humidity, when “red flag” fire warnings are common. Currently, PG&E says they will continue with the rolling blackouts when weather conditions warrant. That is, as they say, the “new normal.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsome is more than just an interested spectator in this dilemma affecting the wine industry. In 1992, he founded the PlumpJack wine shop in San Francisco and the company has grown into a formidable wine entity including PlumpJack, Cade and Odette wineries. As governor, he has put his holdings into a private trust. But last week he commented: “We’re in the middle of wine crush and folks are running around trying to get generators right now, in the middle of crush. I mean, it’s very consequential.”
That led to questions about the propriety of the statement, but it did not deter Newsome from calling out PG&E for “greed and neglect.”
Then there is this. Beginning Oct. 18, the trade wars will hit the world of wine. New tariffs go into effect that will impose a 25% tax on wines from Spain, Germany and France that are 14% alcohol or less. In other words, a bottle of Sancerre that is light and refreshing at $20 will now cost a more formidable $25 or so.
This may not mean a lot to the average wine consumer in the U.S., but it means the world to a wine producer who is making an artisanal product at razor-thin margins and now has one the world’s largest economies taxing his product at a quarter of the retail price.
The dispute, which is part of a decade-and-a-half kerfuffle over European Union subsidies to Airbus for the manufacture of airplanes, also imposes 25% tariffs on scotch whisky, including single malts, Spanish cheeses and olives, biscuits from Britain, and Aperol and Amaretto from Italy. That’ll show ’em. Aircraft, meanwhile, will be under just a 10% tariff. Go figure.
While I know this column is not a place where readers go for a dose of reality, I felt compelled, due largely to the juxtaposition of these diverse but important issues, to devote some thought to the plight of winemakers.
It’s not all laughs and giggles for them, either.
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Former race-car driver, current Lewis Cellars winemaker Randy Lewis hosts Aspen dinner alongside chef Byron Gomez as part of the “Aspen Summer Supper Club Series” at 7908.