Some Vines, No Wines

By Karl Klooster

In November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised the Oregon wine industry that because of budget constraints, its National Agricultural Statistics Service arm would be unable to produce the annual Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report for 2011.

That announcement came as an unpleasant surprise to virtually everyone involved in the making, marketing, promoting or selling of wine — or even goods and services related to wine. So the Oregon Wine Board stepped in to fund an abbreviated version.

The USDA began conducting an annual vineyard survey, and compiling a thorough report based on it, in 1981. It expanded to cover wineries as well in 2001, thanks to the industry’s growing importance.

The key has always been accuracy and authenticity. 

The report is based on information gathered directly from vineyard and winery personnel, who fill out detailed questionnaires regarding their activities and results. This proprietary information has been voluntarily submitted, with the assurance it would be compiled only in aggregate form by the federal agency, but not otherwise released or shared.

Near-universal cooperation has made the NASS report the single most valuable informational tool available. It has provided a comprehensive, county-by-county picture of Oregon vineyard and winery development over the past decade.

The ability to trace patterns is prominent among its numerous benefits. It is immensely useful in forecasting trends and guiding future plans.

For 2011, however, the report has been reduced from its normal 12 pages to a scant two. All information on wineries has been omitted along with a lot of data on vineyards. What remains are core figures on vineyard acreage, vineyard yield and crop pricing.

With this basic information, one can at least determine that production increased a revitalizing 33 percent over the brief 2010 vintage. In fact, 2011 production totaled a record 41,500 tons, exceeding the previous high of 40,200 tons set in 2009.

Beyond that, however, there is little to be gleaned. 

Gone are production figures for each of 16 varieties of grape and 15 counties or groupings of counties. They have been replaced with a single chart tracking seven major varieties in five major geographic areas.

The four major causes of grape losses have been tracked, along with acreage changes by variety and price per ton by variety and geographic grouping. And that’s useful.

Unfortunately, dangling such tantalizing tidbits merely highlights how much has been lost, as these elements were fully developed in previous reports — and they were accompanied by additional pricing and sales information.

But the biggest loss was the rich array of winery stats.

Previous reports included the number, crush and cooperage of wineries in each county, as well as the crush by variety and area, which encompassed 10 individual varieties and a catchall category for the rest.

Even more informative were the detailed charts examining tonnage statistics by estate grown, purchased and custom crush. This was accompanied by another chart listing 16 varieties by origin — estate, other Oregon and out of state.

An example of just how difficult this information would be to compile without benefit of the NASS process can be seen in the numbers of wineries in operation and their locations.

This basic information is available from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. But the list requires extensive processing to have value from a quantitative standpoint.

Also gone are charts detailing inventory and sales by variety, both by the case and in bulk, over the previous two years. One of the bigger losses was a chart called, “Domestic sales by destination,” which was divided into two categories.

The first, “Direct to consumers,” included wineries or tasting rooms, wine clubs, events and online. The second, “Sales to distributors, retailers and restaurants,” was broken down by Oregon, Washington, New York, California and Other U.S.

Compiling such information through other means would be tedious and expensive.

That’s also true for a chart titled, “Export sales by variety and wine type,” which covered the case quantities of 11 types sold to Canada, Japan, South Korea, All Other Asia, the U.K., the Caribbean, Scandinavia and All Other.

To maintain continuity of information at the fundamental level, the Oregon Wine Board commissioned this year’s abbreviated version.

Its recent release informs us about the dramatic increase in overall production levels, despite a difficult and prolonged vintage. It also reveals that Pinot Noir remains the unchallenged king, accounting for 23,726 tons, or 57 percent, of Oregon’s total grape production. 

Pinot Gris follows at 6,046 tons. Next is Chardonnay, 1,923 tons; Riesling, 1,866; and Syrah, 1,319. A contender to watch closely is Tempranillo, which increased from 242 tons in 2010 to 526 in 2011.

Putting all this in perspective, the NASS budget reductions have affected every aspect of agriculture, not just the wine industry. That’s a shame. If there’s any area where a small amount of money has been effectively spent, it’s this one.

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