The unwelcome implications of another la nina winter for Paso Robles vineyards
A Dry (but Picturesque) Beginning to the 2011-2012 Winter

A Tale of Two Grenaches

About a week ago, I got back from our annual pilgrimage to the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays event held at the beautiful Ahwahnee Hotel each fall.  At this event -- which I wrote about a few years ago and which I highly recommend -- each winery is expected to present a seminar to the roughly 200 guests on a topic of their choosing.  I've conducted blending seminars, focused on obscure varieties, and delved into grapes in depth.  This year, I presented a seminar titled "Grenache: Red, White, and Coming to a Vineyard Near You".  In the research into acreage statistics I did in preparing for the talk, I realized that the data suggests a fascinating narrative about the Grenache grape in California.

Bounty of HarvestGrenache, pictured right at harvest, is a grape of enormous importance around the world.  It is the Rhone Valley's most widely planted grape, and along with significant plantings in Spain and Australia, accounts for the second greatest world-wide acreage of any wine grape.  Its history in California dates back to the 1860's.  [For more on Grenache's history and characteristics, I refer readers to the post Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache from 2010.]

Despite Grenache's long history and the increasing popularity of Grenache-based wines from Europe, Grenache in California has had a checkered history.  For many wine drinkers who learned about wine in the 1960's and 1970's, "California Grenache" was sweet and light in color, and had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980's.  More recently, most of this Grenache acreage has found its way into blends, often jug wines, and gone unacknowledged.  Acreage in California has declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres (I've been unable to find when it peaked, or exactly at what level) down to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 6170 acres today.

At the same time, Grenache is in the middle of a renaissance.  James Laube, writing in the Wine Spectator last year, called it "one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom" and in premium areas it has become downright scarce.  In Paso Robles it is now one of the most in-demand grapes, and commands a premium price.  We could have filled a boat with the Syrah we were offered for our Patelin de Tablas this year, but it was a struggle to find the Grenache we wanted even though Grenache is more productive and easier to grow. 

At first glance, it doesn't make sense that Grenache can be both on the rise and on the decline.  But looking at the acreage data in detail shows a more complex story, in which Tablas Creek plays a part.  For there are really two Grenaches, and I'm not referring to Grenache Blanc.  When we started to research the available clones of Rhone varieties in California, we were not thrilled with what we found.  Many clones appeared to have been chosen (if that is not too strong a word) for productivity rather than high quality.  When we looked at, particularly, Grenache and Mourvedre, the cluster sizes and the berry sizes were both enormous, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, and the flavors were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting.  Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated and overcropped, but we thought that there was something inherently different about the raw material.  It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.

We weren't the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache.  Perhaps spurred by our actions, ENTAV licensed a handful of California's grapevine nurseries to bring in a range of new clonal material, and there have doubtless been unauthorized importations as well.  But the net effect of the arrival of these new clones has been dramatic.  Grenache has been planted in high quality areas where its previous footprint was negligible at the same time it's being pulled out of the Central Valley, where its quality has historically been low.  Some acreage statistics:

Acreage by County 1995 2000 2005 2010
Fresno 3083 3128 2483 1789
Glenn 503 503 503 157
Kern 1418 1154 107 99
Kings 270 271 239 239
Madera 3605 3674 2401 1869
Merced 387 315 150 125
San Joaquin 637 567 415 372
Stanislaus 849 758 282 148
Tulare 167 398 253 232
Total Central Valley
11019 10768 6833
Amador 8 10 11 14
Calaveras 0 0 2 3
El Dorado 8 9 16 26
Lake 0 0 13 15
Mendocino 38 41 65 103
Monterey 133 111 153 132
Napa 10 17 21 26
San Luis Obispo 7 50 114 326
Santa Barbara 8 115 164 228
Sonoma 36 55 66 108
Total Coastal & Foothills
250 410 625

The Grenache planted in the Central Valley has been pulled out at an annual rate of about 4% since 1995, accelerating to 6% since 2000.  By contrast, Grenache acreage in coastal and foothills counties has grown at about 10% per year since 1995, a rate that increases to 15% per year if you exclude Monterey County, which seems to me to be an outlier in the data.  Of course, it's important to recognize that there are Grenache vineyards going in and being pulled out of most of these counties, and that while older clones are being pulled out of the Central Valley, there are also new, higher quality vineyards being planted in places like Lodi.

San Luis Obispo County's rise is worth noting, particularly since almost all of this acreage is in Paso Robles.  From a nonentity in 1995 with just 7 acres, it now has the fourth most acreage of Grenache in California, with 50% more acres than Santa Barbara, the next-most-planted coastal county.  In fact, the three counties with the most acreage are all in the Central Coast, whose acreage is nearly triple that of the North Coast and fifteen times that of the Sierra Foothills.

What does this all mean for the future of Grenache?  I think it's all positive.  The grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as importantly being pulled out of the wrong places.  The clones that are available are better than they've ever been before.  In general, the producers who are working with Grenache are Rhone specialists, which suggests it's in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California's next big grape would be.  Syrah has yet to recover.  There are two active and effective organizations (The Rhone Rangers and Hospice du Rhone) who are advocating for Grenache.  The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I've spoken with in the last year has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America.  And the market seems increasingly comfortable with both new, unusual grape varieties and with blends, where Grenache shines.

Will Grenache be the next big thing in California?  I'm not sure I would wish that on it.  But will it see success over the coming decades?  I think that's an easy prediction.