Growers push for wine in grocery stores

Gwen Chamberlain

The next economic wave, in local terms, may just be one of grape juice. With a glut of juice sitting in tanks all over the region, local growers are grappling with the prospect of contract reductions. The state’s largest buyer of wine grapes has just informed its contracted growers that it will cut about 5,000 tons of grapes from its intended purchases over the next two harvests.

Canandaigua Wine spokesperson Angie Blackwell confirmed last week that representatives from the company met with its grower advisory council recently to discuss the current market trends that have pushed the company into a position where it will reduce tons purchased in 2012 by 15 percent.

“We’re seeing an over-supply situation with New York and Pennsylvania grapes due to a changing demand for different wines produced, said Blackwell, who adds, “We don’t like to make these cuts because the growers are very important to us.”

Don Tones, president of the New York Wine Grape Growers, calls the news “devastating.” But he also says he understands the wine company’s position. In fact, he credits the Canandaigua company for buying grapes as long as it did. “They hung on a long time with us,” he said.

“Some of the smaller wineries cut back two years ago. You knew sooner or later it was going to happen to the big guys.”

“We really regret having to make this decision and we’re doing everything we can to help with the transition,” adds Blackwell, who explains, “These are challenging times for the economy. Wine drinkers are changing and so are the types of wines we produce at Canandaigua Wine.” She adds, “We continuously look at all the costs of goods that go into making wine and it’s a very capital-intensive process.”

Tones was among a group of wine grape growers who travelled to Albany last week to advocate the sale of wine in New York grocery stores as a means to increase the demand for their grapes.  

“We really feel wine in grocery stores would help move these grapes,” Tones says, recalling a similar situation in the 1980s, when legislation allowing the sale of wine coolers in grocery stores helped soak up a glut in juice.

Information provided by the NYWGG points to previous cutbacks that mirror the continuing decline in the number of liquor stores which sell wine, from about 4,500 30 years ago to only about 2,500 today to serve a population of 19 million people.  While there has been significant growth in the number of new small wineries in New York State, their combined grape purchases are a very small amount of the total, and have also been affected by the difficult economy of the past few years.    

“The situation facing New York wine grape growers has reached a critical point,” says Tones, “and we need an immediate, major market expansion to solve the problem.  Now is the time for the State of New York to join over 35 other states in giving consumers the basic convenience of buying their wine with other foods, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenues for state coffers, and supporting a native industry like ours.  There is clear precedent for how such a market expansion provides immediate benefits for grape growers based on the law allowing the sale of wine coolers in grocery and liquor stores in 1984.”

In 1984, former Governor Mario Cuomo proposed the sale of wine in grocery stores, which the legislature did not support.  However, a law was passed which allowed the sale of new “wine coolers”—low-alcohol mixtures of wine and fruit juice—to be sold in grocery stores as well as liquor stores.  It was originally estimated that this measure would absorb about 5,000 tons of grapes which otherwise would be left hanging on the vine.  In fact, the wineries bought five times that much—25,000 tons—which saved many grape farms and stimulated demand in subsequent years, according to Tones.

The impact from wine in grocery stores would be even greater since no fruit juice is involved, he notes.

“Consumer polls show that the majority of New Yorkers favor wine in grocery stores, and enacting this would bring in about $300 million for the state at a time of a huge budget deficit,” says Tones.  “It just makes no sense that America’s third largest wine producing state won’t let its native grape growers and wineries sell their products as freely as other states do.  Our vineyards and families are literally rooted in New York, and we couldn’t pick up and move to another state even if we wanted to.  And we don’t, we just want to be able to make a living in our home State.”

The New York State Wine Grape Growers (NYSWGG), formed nearly 50 years ago to protect and advance the interests of wine grape growers throughout the State, has advocated wine in grocery stores for decades.  Members of the organization joined colleagues from the New York Wine Industry Association, representing New York wineries, to push for the measure under the umbrella of New York Farm Bureau’s Lobby Days on February 28 and March 1.