The quest to keep San Joaquin Valley’s wine industry growing

Behind every glass of California wine there is a vineyard, a farmer, sunlight – and someone like Lindsay Jordan.

To keep California’s wine flowing, the University of California Cooperative Extension area viticulture adviser to Madera, Merced and Mariposa counties is working to create options for vineyard sustainability and act as a resource for the region’s grape growers.

“My love of wine drives a lot – what can I say,” Jordan laughed. “I don’t know about you, but I want to keep drinking wine until the day I die, so I really want to do my part to ensure the sustainability of drinking California wine.”

Her mission is simple:to keep the wine-making and viticulture industries happy and healthy in California, which accounts for nearly 85 percent of total U.S. wine production, according to the Wine Institute.

Jordan is growing 56 varieties of grapes with a goal of learning how some flourish or fail in the central San Joaquin Valley. She also is running a project to evaluate nematode-resistant rootstock, which could potentially provide growers a way to escape the pests.

The projects, funded by the American Vineyard Foundation, befit Jordan, who said she found a balance between the worlds of industry and academia as an adviser. She received a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis and a master’s in horticulture from Cornell University.

With her background and passion, she said she is happiest in the field.

At the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, part of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the project’s diverse grapevines are nestled among peaches, kiwi and raisin grapes – just a few of the 80 research projects being done, said Chuck Boldwyn, the center superintendent of agriculture.

The 56 varieties Jordan is watching all originated in warmer climates, including Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain, and they are grown in Central California sun and soil to mimic conditions if grown by local farmers.

“There’s a misconception that the San Joaquin Valley could only grow bulk – let’s say, not the most characteristic – wine,” Jordan said. “And that’s just wrong.”

Nearly 75 percent of the grape varieties grown in California vineyards can be counted on two hands. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon alone account for more than 25 percent of wine grapes grown in the Valley, according to the USDA Grape Crush Report.

As the vines in the project grow, produce fruit and ripen, Jordan’s team is looking for things like how many grapes the plants yield, as well as the berries’ color development and acidity levels, which become more desirable for winemaking when the colors are richer and the acid levels higher.

Since the maintenance, environment and irrigation methods (hello, California drought) mirror those of many Valley vineyards, Jordan can also keep track of rot, additional needs and when the grapes are ready to harvest.

These data can help farmers make decisions on what varieties they may eventually want to try, as well as familiarize wineries that would potentially be interested, she said.

“I won’t declare any winners,” Jordan said. “I’ll say I have favorites, and I definitely have losers that I would not recommend.”

Jordan said the possibility of blended wines, or wines made from multiple varieties of grape, could be a good option for some of the lesser-known varieties that grow well.

During the year-and-a-half she has been with the project, she has added a few varieties to the mixed-and-matched vineyard, and she has become more interested in how certain varieties would perform, such as a Sicilian red variety called Nero d’Avola, which she referred to as some of her “favorite babies” while walking through the vineyard.

“I’m excited because Sicily is a warm climate and Nero d’Avola is a respected wine from that region – and I’m hoping it will do well in our warm climate, too,” she said.

“Personally, I’ve had some amazing Nero d’Avola wines and know the potential that it may have for our region.”

The project was started by James Wolpert, a retired viticulture specialist, and continued by Matthew Fidelibus, who said the project was valuable for the Central California wine industry.

Since the project started, two plots have been planted – the first had only 20 varieties, the second has 56. Fidelibus explained that the project’s goals are relatively simple: to find solutions in varieties not often grown here.

“With reds, we often see not enough pigment when they’re grown here,” he said. “White varieties don’t always have enough acidity, so they’re not tart enough.”

Fidelibus said that by using information from the project, researchers were able to start looking for varieties that don’t have these problems in the San Joaquin Valley heat. Then, a goal is to share the findings with wineries as well as growers, he said.

Finding the next cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, he said, would be a home run. However, the data supplied by the project are also important in providing farmers and wineries the research and background to expand their own vineyards.

“If any of these varieties are going to be useful, it’s important that the wineries are interested and comfortable with them,” Fidelibus said. “The grower can’t grow varieties without the assurance that a winery is going to use them.”

Already, wines have been made from nearly all of the first 20 varieties, as well as about half of the latter 56 varieties planted throughout the project’s life by the folks at Constellation Brands, said Oren Kaye, a senior winemaker for research and development.

“Internally, we’ve planted some of the varieties,” he said. “We’re looking for varieties that make sense for both the wineries and the growers.”

Kaye said the winemaking processes used with the project’s grapes were designed to be simple and express the fruit that was there. Some of the varieties could have potential as standalone wines, while others could be used to enrich or add flavor to other wine varieties, he said.

For example, petite sirah, a red grape variety that originated in the south of France, produced good color despite the heat, Kaye said, which would make it a possible option for Valley production.

Another piece that demonstrates the project’s value is based on the realities of environmental factors in the central San Joaquin Valley, he said, which has been hot and dry without an indication of changing.

“I’d like to see some more local wineries interested, and testing these varieties,” he said.

Jordan expressed similar excitement for the potential held within the vines she tends. The 56 varieties have the opportunity to change what the central San Joaquin Valley’s wine industry looks like and provide a basis on which farmers can rely for data they cannot produce themselves.

The other project Jordan is working on is a test run for nematode-resistant rootstocks. In the central San Joaquin Valley, she said, nematodes are a common problem for growers, and traditional options are not always viable.

“There’s a limited number of acreage that can be fumigated every year,” she explained. “I have growers who are within a certain range of schools and can’t fumigate at all. For them, that’s not an option, so what can you do to remain economically viable?”

Her answer was to use this project as a way to evaluate rootstocks and see how they perform in the vineyard, especially when production is at stake.

Jordan keeps the economic factors that farmers and winemakers work under in mind in her research, and she is constantly looking for ways to look at the industry from that perspective.

“It’s all part of a bigger story of where the San Joaquin Valley is going in terms of wine grape production,” she said. “The bulk demand has been decreasing, whereas the premium, or $7 or above bottle of wine, has been increasing.”

“The idea, then, is to help San Joaquin Valley growers. How can they economically meet these demands of premiumization as well as stay in business?”

Sydney Maki: @symmaki