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Valley's sweet muscat grapes grow in popularity

Sunday, September 26, 2010

by Robert Rodriguez

A hip-hop song, changing tastes and an affordable price are giving new life to a sweet-tasting grape grown in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Interest in wine made from Muscat of Alexandria grapes has grown so much that Valley growers are planting new acres of the fruit that some had written off as a dying variety.

"It had really fallen out of favor for a while, and we had a hard time selling it," said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno. "Now, we are at the point where demand may be outpacing the current supply."

DiBuduo estimates that acreage will increase by at least 50% over the next two years, from 3,245 acres in production statewide today.

Among the reasons for the surge is a growing number of muscat wine drinkers.

Sales of Moscato -- a muscat wine -- rose 78% during a one-year period ending in June, said Jon Fredrikson of Woodside-based Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, a wine industry consulting firm.

"There is a whole generation of people who don't like sour wines, and these wines are addressing that segment of the market," Fredrikson said. "And right now it has really caught fire."

Major wine labels such as E&J Gallo and Sutter Home have Moscato wines that did very well last year, despite a 3% drop in overall wine sales.

And upstarts like Bronco Winery, makers of Two Buck Chuck, also have introduced their own Moscato wines.

Analysts say consumers began trading down during the recession and found sweeter wines to their liking. Many Moscato wines are priced under $10 and known for their floral sweetness.

The buzz about Moscato grew even stronger, especially among younger drinkers, when it became part of the lyrics in a song featuring Drake, a fast-rising Canadian hip-hop artist.

It's a celebration! Clap, clap, bravo.

Lobster and shrimp and a glass of Moscato

For the girl who's a student and her friend who's a model

Finish the whole bottle and we gonna do it big like this!

Now after decades of being viewed as just a sugary dessert wine -- or worse, a favorite of drinkers on a budget -- Moscato is hip.

At E&J Gallo, the largest family-owned winery in the world, sales of its Moscato brand are outpacing many of its other varieties.

"We have seen growing consumption in the last few years among a lot of age groups," said Greg Coleman, Gallo spokesman. "And it has been strong growth."

Although he would not go into details about sales figures or acreage, Coleman said Gallo expects Moscato to remain hot for some time.

"We have been positioning ourselves to meet the growing demand by expanding our supply with both existing vineyards and new plantings," Coleman said.

Nursery owners also are benefiting from the renewed interest in Muscat of Alexandria, a variety that does well in the Valley's heat.

"We have been talking with growers who say the wineries are definitely interested," said Mike Enns, a sales representative for Vintage Nurseries in Wasco. "And we have been selling a lot of Muscat of Alexandria vines."

This year, Enns sold tens of thousands of vines to cover at least 300 acres.

Among those riding the new wave of muscat love is Easton grower Ray Jacobsen. He planted 30 acres this year on his west Fresno County farm.

Jacobsen, a veteran farmer who has been growing table and wine grapes for years, had been interested in Muscat of Alexandria but never had the opportunity to plant any, until now.

Like other growers, Jacobsen was careful not to plant any new wine grapes without a winery contract.

"Once we got that contract, we went ahead and planted," Jacobsen said. "We think this can do well as long it does not get overdone. A little bit is all right. A whole bunch can be a disaster."

DiBuduo also cautions growers from planting without a winery contract. Overplanting can produce a glut and send prices spiraling downward.

Last year, muscat prices rose to an average of $350 a ton, up from a low of $150 a ton several years ago.

DiBuduo theorizes that the growth in the Moscato market also is a reflection of more consumers choosing to drink what they like. For many years, people who drank white zinfandel, a blended wine with a pinkish hue, were viewed as not serious wine drinkers.

"People were looked down upon for drinking this pink wine," DiBuduo said. "But my feeling is people should drink what they like, and right now people are saying, I like sweet wine and I am going to drink it."