Kevin Judkins says that sales continue to be hot for wine grapes. (Melissa Hansen/Good Fruit Grower)

Kevin Judkins says that sales continue to be hot for wine grapes. (Melissa Hansen/Good Fruit Grower)

Sales of wine grape plant material were down slightly in 2013, but the coming year looks to be a record, a Washington nursery owner says.

Historically, the four most popular wine grape varieties sold in Washington State have been Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling, said Kevin ­Judkins, nursery manager of Inland Desert Nursery in Benton City, Washington State’s largest grape nursery.

“Those four varieties annually make up 60 percent of our sales,” he said during a talk at the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting in Grandview.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is going strong,” he said, adding that the number of vines sold in 2011, 2012, and 2013 were approximately 560,000, 520,000, and more than 650,000, respectively. Merlot vines sold in the same time period ranged from more than 210,000 to nearly 290,000. The number of Chardonnay vines sold in 2013 totalled 135,000, down from a peak of 152,500 in 2011. “The problem with Chardonnay is not demand, but that we don’t have enough clean wood,” Judkins said.

Several years ago, Inland Desert made a strategic decision to sell only certified plant material. This meant the company had to replant more than 100 acres with virus-indexed rootstock and scion mother blocks from the new Clean Plant Center Northwest-Grapes.

The Clean Plant Center Northwest-­Grapes ­(formerly the Northwest Grape Foundation Service) revitalized its foundation block in the last decade, replanting vines in a new location under the latest virus and bacterial testing methods.

Plant material from the new block is certified free of currently known grapevine diseases, including Rupestris stem pitting virus, a virus not screened for in some clean plant programs. Additionally, plant material coming out of the Clean Plant Center Northwest-­Grapes is propagated in a way that assures freedom from the crown gall bacterium. California nurseries do not screen for crown gall because it is not an issue there.

Of the four top-selling wine grape varieties at Inland Desert, Riesling was the most surprising last year. “Sales of Riesling dropped significantly in 2013, and they’ve really fallen off the chart for 2014,” Judkins said. “About the only Riesling we’re moving now are vines sold to Texas.”

Around 360,000 Riesling vines were sold in 2011. In 2013, the number dropped to around 100,000 vines. “When sales for the top four varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling are lined up side by side, you can see how staggering a fall that Riesling has had,” he said.

Other popular sellers

For varieties in the less than 100,000 vines sold category, Malbec has been the leader for the last three years, hitting 90,000 vines sold in 2013.

Sauvignon Blanc is another variety that has jumped in popularity. “We’re completely sold out of Sauvignon Blanc for the coming year,” Judkins said.

Syrah sales also increased significantly in the last two years. “We weren’t really selling any Syrah for the last five years, but sales really jumped in 2012 and 2013.” Less than 40,000 vines were sold in 2011, climbing to around 230,000 vines in 2012 and 180,000 last year. Judkins attributes the jump in part to replanting of lost vines in Horse Heaven Hills from the 2010 Thanksgiving freeze as well as Syrah plantings by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

“But also, smaller growers have been planting Syrah.”

Popular clones for Syrah have been the French ENTAV clones 174, 383, and 470. The best-selling ­Cabernet Sauvignon clone for Washington growers has been clone 33, a selection that can ­maximize yield and quality, especially on cooler sites.

“Also on the rise, and on growers’ radars, are Rhone selections,” he said. For growers with the right site, there’s interest in planting Mourvèdre, Grenache, and others. Lesser known varieties on the rise are Aglianico, Alvarinho, Gruner Veltliner, Graciano, ­Sagrantino, Carmenere, and Dolcetto.

Inland Desert has sold some of the new winter-hardy hybrid varieties coming out of the University of Minnesota, such as Marquette, LaCrescent, Frontenac, and Frontenac Gris. “Hybrids are a trend to follow, but I’m not sure where they will all shake out. It’s really too early to tell.”

Most of the hybrid sales are to out-of-state growers, although veteran grape grower Paul Champoux of Alderdale, Washington, recently planted a small test plot of Marquette. The Minnesota variety is reported to survive cold temperatures of minus 30°F and still have a crop. (See “Variety has it all,” February 1, 2012, Good Fruit Grower for more information on Marquette.)

Judkins noted that sales of Lemberger have increased now that the nursery has ­certified plant material available. ­

Limited supply

Growers have become knowledgeable about clean plant programs and the importance of sourcing certified material, he said. “We get a lot of phone calls asking about certified vines. Growers are asking the right questions.”

The discovery of a new grapevine disease in California and other states called grapevine red blotch associated virus has put additional pressure on certified wood. Although the industry is still getting a handle on the new disease, he noted that currently, red blotch has only been found in one Washington vineyard on certified vines that were from a California nursery.

“In the last few years, as we’ve been revamping our certified stock program, we ­probably were getting rid of viruses that we didn’t even know we had,” ­Judkins said.

Nationwide, there’s still a shortage of certified plant material. Inland Desert built several greenhouses at its Benton City location so that mist propagation can be used to ramp up budwood faster and also to sell potted vine plants, along with traditional dormant bench grafts and rooted dormant wood. But even with the greenhouses, it can’t keep up with the demand for certified material.

“There’s just a lot of competition from all over for plant material. Regions are still in a planting boom,” he said. “My forecast for 2014 is that it will be a record year for planting. There’s a shortage of certified vine material everywhere—except when it comes to Riesling, of which there’s plenty.”

When asked if he’s seen Riesling being pulled out and replaced, Judkins answered that the lack of interest in the variety is simply due to a surplus of Riesling wine ­inventory. “There’s just not more room in the market for that variety to grow.”

The planting trend is towards more reds, he said. “As the wine industries in other states become more sophisticated, places like Texas, that first planted Muscat Canelli, are now planting more reds.”

In short, he said there’s limited availability of dormant material and limited greenhouse space. “If you don’t have your order in already to your nursery for 2014 delivery, you’ll be looking at getting plants in 2015.” •