Los Angeles Wine Shop Folks Discuss the "Wine Shortage"

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Thu, Nov 7, 2013 at 9:39 AM

click to enlarge FLICKR/ANDREAS LEVERS
Wine drinkers beware. The grape-ocalypse is nigh. Or at least that's what some analysts said last week at Morgan Stanley. The facts seem to speak for themselves. In 2012, there was a shortfall of about 300 million cases of wine per year, the most substantial drop in about 50 years. Spain, France and Italy now are using less land to grow grapes. In Europe, production fell about 10% last year. And all this even though there are around 1 million producers making 2.8 billion cases of wine a year.

So, how do you separate the juice from the must? Are we really in for a grapeless existence? Not at all, say the folks we talked to at L.A.'s wine shops. The wine world has always been fluid (pardon the pun), with grapes, weather and producers all a fickle lot.

As is often the case, the Morgan Stanley report was a bit alarmist, not to mention the fact that it focused on low-end product (think Franzia, 2 Buck Chuck and other inexpensive labels). Low-end, or table grapes, produce a smaller revenue than super premium, or specialized, bottlings.

Tom Martinez, general manager of K & L Wine Merchants explains the "shortage" this way: "You're talking about (bulk) wines. If you sold that land off for development, you are making more money than you do from the grapes. If you're talking Sassicaia (a highly coveted Bordeaux style from Italy) grapes, now you're making some money."

In other words, the vines that are being pulled up en masse in Europe are mostly cheaper grapes whose owners see the potential to pocket some serious cash by making way for profitable development. If you're a corporate wine giant who sources grapes from vineyards around the world, then yes, some of your options will literally be drying up.

Jill Bernheimer, owner of Domaine L.A., which focuses on often obscure, more grower-focused wines, says that in her end of the business, "There's always a little bit of a shortage. From vintage to vintage, we deal with production fluctuation." So, for her, the "wine shortage" is already an issue, completely outside the purview of the recent predictions.

This is because the smaller, boutique winemakers -- folks who might only make 500 to 1,000 cases a year (in 2012, Charles Shaw, also known as Two-Buck Chuck, was selling 5 million cases per year; Gallo's Barefoot Cellars produced 10 million cases in 2011) face more challenges with their grapes. For instance, Bernheimer recalls when a hailstorm wiped out the entire vintage of one of her go-to producers in the Loire Valley.

If you're wondering what that small Loire producer losing his vintage means to you, well not much. Granted, you might be upset that you can't get your favorite bottle of Vouvray, but as Bernheimer notes, "There's always another great wine to discover."

Kaj Stromer, wine director and general manager at Woodland Hills Wine Company, which specializes in many premium bottles and high-end names, says, "You have to be flexible. You have no choice." For instance, he notes, there will definitely be a shortage of 2013 Burgundy (the region has been crippled by hailstorms for two years running), but, like Bernheimer, Stromer will simply buy something else that is equally alluring. So for collectors -- and even general wine enthusiasts -- there will always be wine to buy.

The bottom line, as Martinez succinctly says, is, "Numbers are numbers and statistics are statistics." By 2016, both the United States and China are likely to chug more than 400 million cases of wine in each country, so demand will continue to increase.

If you're a corporate grape grower used to producing a million cases a year of basic table wine, the future may be a bit of a challenge because you source wine from numerous regions where growers may be selling off their land for a profit. But, for the wine consumer, the choices will continue to be there and your cup will continue to runneth over.

Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at ljsolmonson@gmail.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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