Napa Valley may be the Lamborghini of California’s wine regions — with the sexy, splashy, and pricey veneer that goes with it — but it doesn’t hold a candle to the 209.
For want of a better analogy, it is here in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties that you will find the Nissan, Toyota, Ford, and General Motors of the global wine industry. Not that they lack exotic models just like Ford with its Shelby or GM with its Corvette, but the 209 wine producers satisfy the palate of the masses that demand quality without having to mortgage the ranch.
Half of the top eight American wineries in terms of volume based on cases shipped are in the 209.
Gallo (Modesto) is No.1, The Wine Group (Ripon) is No. 2, Bronco (Ceres) is No. 5, and Delicato (Manteca) is No. 7.
You would think with the explosion of boutique wineries would chip away at the eight’s market share.
But as experts that have spoken at the Wine Industry Financial Symposium have noted since the Great Recession the Big Three – Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation — have seen robust market share growth that has pushed 10 percent in some years. Right behind them in the No. 4 to No. 8 territory that includes Bronco and Delicato are producers that have enjoyed the next highest overall percentage gain on an annual basis in recent years.
So what gives? Wine snobs would have you believe Gallo et al have an albatross image around their neck in the ghost of Thunderbird wine. For those too young to remember 29 cent a gallon gasoline and service station attendants that washed your windshields, Thunderbird was bottled in an era far, far away when George Lucas was a student at Downey High in Modesto. Gallo bottled the creation under the Thunderbird label and hawked it as “The American Classic.” Critics — and there were a few — equated the taste to high octane gasoline.
Unfortunately some wine critics are still sipping light crude from Saudi Arabia and confusing it with Gallo wines. Think Dark Horse and Apothic Red. They are premium wines about as far away from Thunderbird as the Ford Mustang Shelby GT is from the Ford Pony that made the Pinto feel like a luxurious muscle car in comparison.
The Wine Group with its winery operations along East Highway 120 in Ripon rural territory midway between Escalon and Manteca knows quality as well but have managed to effectively work technology to come up with innovations that have set the wine world on its ears. The lineage of Franzia Winery that brought the world wine in a box is now rolling out wine in a can.
Delicato at No.7 is no slouch. (My apologizes to Vince Indelicato for incorrectly last week kicking the Manteca winery now being run by the family’s third generation down the ranking peg five notches.)
Not only do I have relatives that only want one thing when I drop by to visit — anything that is a Gnarly Head vintage — but I have friends in snob hill territory in San Francisco who turn their noses up at the tried and true Delicato label but savor a wide selection from the family’s portfolio of premium wines born with grapes grown at the storied — and massive — San Bernabe Vineyard they own in Monterrey County that has just about every micro-climate zone imaginable needed to produce some of the world’s best grapes.
This is not meant to shortchange grapes grown in the 209. Far from it.
San Joaquin County, in fact, is the top wine grape producing county in California blowing the doors off the relatively anemic Napa and Sonoma counties.
The California Department of Agriculture reported in 2012 that 109,500 acres — or 22 percent of all land devoted to wine grapes that were bearing fruit — could be found in San Joaquin County. That was followed by Napa County at 12 percent and Sonoma County at 9 percent. Monterey and Fresno — which is the undisputed American king for the growing of table grapes — rounded the top five counties for wine grape production.
Ah, yes, let’s not forget the argument of quality versus quantity. The ideal soils found east and southeast of the Delta from the remnants of an ancient inland sea, the hot days cooled by Delta breezes at night, and access to water have allowed San Joaquin County growers to average 9.5 tons of grapes per acre as opposed to 3.6 tons in Napa and Sonoma counties. It is true the Department of Agriculture dutifully notes high-quality wineries are closer to the coast.
But here’s the rub: This overwhelming majority of this nation’s 100 million wine drinkers demand quality but also at a price point they can afford. They drive Camrys, F-150s, Lexuses, Ford Fusions, Impalas, Mustangs, and Sentras. And they want those cars to be of high quality, provide a satisfying experience, be reliable, and meet all of their needs. It doesn’t mean they might not long for a Lotus, Rolls Royce or Lamborghini.
And just like with racing bicycles — the kind you pedal — once you pass a certain threshold of around $700 you start spending extraordinary amounts of cash for minuscule improvements. The same is true of cars and wine.
It certainly wouldn’t bother Gaspare Indelicato, brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo, or the Franzia Brothers, brothers Fred and Joe Franzia along with their cousin John Franzia that the wineries they started in the Heart of California are now the biggest players in putting wine in the glasses of people worldwide.
Knock the 209 all you want, but at the end of the day there is much to “wine” about.