It’s mid-July. Jeff Bitter, of Allied Grape Growers (AGG), which includes 500 grower-members, is driving on I-5 from Fresno, where the organization held its annual meeting.
He drives over the Altamont Pass toward Livermore, for a meeting of Northern California members.
He’s been making these trips for two decades, but this year is special – Bitter just took over as president of the association July 1, following in the footsteps of longtime AGG head Nat DiBuduo.
“I’ve been here about 21 years, so it’s one of the longer professional training programs in the world,” Bitter says, describing his time with the organization.
He was hired at age 24 to help the prior president, Barry Bedwell, administer contracts, usually involving the use of a fax machine.
Times have changed.
“We were doing $30 to 50 million in annual sales,” Bitter says. “Now we’re doing $80 to 100 million.”
Some changes in the ensuing decades have been positive – technology has made life easier for winegrape growers, like everyone else. Some have not: Bitter says the practice of domestic winemakers using imported grapes has hurt local growers.
“You had importers who would import wine but you did not have the domestic producers, the wineries of California bringing in boatloads of bulk wine,” Bitter said. “Today that is rampant, just part of their business. They want a global portfolio of wines to offer their customers, they are not California-centric. It has had a negative impact on growers and the wine community in general in California.”
Bitter’s outlook on the 2018 season is positive.
“Overall (in 2018) it has been nothing but a blessing to be a farmer in a year like this,” he said. “People joke that farmers will complain about any weather condition but in all honesty there’s just not much to complain about this year. This has been about as ideal a growing year as a grower could ask for.”
“I would imagine this could be a year where we look back and say wow, look at the quality,” Bitter said. “I don’t see anything stopping us from having an excellent quality vintage.”
Still, some shoes have yet to drop: he said fire is definitely something on people’s minds after the catastrophe last year in the North Coast.
“From a winemaking perspective, the whole concept of smoke taint and the impact of smoke in the air on quality, those are all high level concerns among growers and winemakers alike,” Bitter said. “Particularly in the coastal areas where the smoke sits in the valleys of those areas and can cause issues with quality.”
There’s a limit to what growers can do, he said, which is why fire is considered a peril on multi-peril crop insurance.
Bitter said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more growers buying crop insurance as a result of recent fires. For more on mitigating the effects of smoke for winegrape crops, see this recent blog.
Other trends Bitter has his eye on include mechanization and labor. He sees labor shortages pushing the use of mechanization which otherwise could take longer to be accepted due to the cost of investing in it.
“I do think we’re fast tracking some of the mechanization because of the minimum wage increases we’ve seen,” Bitter said. “The whole ag overtime issue is adding to it. It’s moving much faster because of those issues.”
Labor, he said, is still a problem that will weigh on growers barring reforms.“As of today, it seems like our legislators are unable to come up with any kind of immigration reform that has appropriate guest worker language or legislation associated with it,” Bitter said. “The ag community is getting very frustrated. There’s a lot of lobbying going on back in D.C., and there’s no progress right now, it’s too polarized.”
Equilibrium describes Bitter’s perspective on the industry’s big picture – pricing and demand.
“It feels like we’re teetering on the edge of oversupply,” he said. “If it is to happen it is going to be an oversupply that comes from an unusually large crop or an oversupply that would be the result of the fact that we’ve struggled to grow wine shipments.”
Last year’s wine shipments were down about 1% from a year before, Bitter said, and “we’ve only been down a couple times in the last 20-30 years, so it makes everybody nervous.”
On the other hand he said, markets are currently stable.
“The sunny side is when we talk about the industry today and we talk about stability, the stability comes from the fact that most winegrapes are covered by multi-year contracts,” Bitter said. “There’s a lot of moving parts in ag in general, so anytime you can talk about stability in ag, it’s a good thing, and I think we’re there right now.”
For his part, Bitter is looking forward to navigating the future of winegrapes with his members at AGG.
He said it’s been an honor working with Nat DiBuduo.
“I’ve had a great opportunity to learn a lot from him,” Bitter said. “Between him and my previous boss who were two very different personalities and styles...I’ve taken a lot from both.”