Monday, December 30, 2013

Inevitable wine bubble

My infatuation with the California Delta -- which is, in truth mostly a series of man-made rivers and sloughs held in place by an old and complex series of of levees -- has matured into a deeper appreciation. It's truly California's most interesting place and its most photogenic, if you pay attention.
Live oak in the late-afternoon delta sun.

There's a big controversy brewing in the delta over -- what else -- water. The governor wants to revive a version of a decades-old idea to siphon water from the Sacramento River above the delta to irrigate Central Valley farmland. All around the delta are signs opposing the plan, including some suggesting the delta should be "saved." That, of course, can't be done. To "save the delta," we'd have to tear out all the dams, locks and levees and let the rivers commingle freely before seeping into the San Francisco Bay. No one wants that.

I'm certainly for preserving the current version of the delta region, in all its odd, ramshackle glory. But even without rerouting any water, the delta is changing.

Just like the sunny slope in southwest Idaho and dozens of other regions across the country, orchards and other crops are being plowed under in favor the wine grapes. Several years ago on our first visit, the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg on the edge of the delta was being renovated into a winery co-op with a handful of tasting rooms. This time, there were 10 wineries doing business there and the large central building, which, at last visit, had been full of old rubble, was bare and clean, ready for more wineries.

One has to wonder, at what point will we hit a "wine bubble?" When will supply outstretch demand to the point that wine prices tumble? It's happened to a degree in France, where inexpensive American, Australian and South American wines have weakened French prices. The problem is that many non-French wines, sold at half or less the price, are now every bit as good and the French product.

In Clarksburg, it's about more than just the wine. We sat in the December sun and enjoyed a bottle of chenin blanc with some bread and cream cheese. Judging by the traffic, which was respectable for a Sunday afternoon, the winery co-op is a success. A few miles down the road, we'd done the same the day before at the Bogle winery, which hugs a winding levee for miles.

The margins for wine must be sufficient to cover the capital costs for a place like the Old Sugar Mill, even as the wine supply continues to grow and prices for good wine continue to fall. Odds are, the next time we visit Clarksburg another half-dozen wineries will have been added to the complex.

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