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April 2012, Volume 18, Number 2

Wine, Food

California crushed 3.3 million tons of wine grapes in 2011 for wine, down almost 10 percent from 2010 (another 600,000 tons of wine grapes were used for concentrate or sweetener). Almost 15 percent of grapes crushed for wine were Chardonnay, followed by 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.

California produces 90 percent of US wine, and 70 percent of the state's wine is produced in the San Joaquin Valley. Most of the grapes crushed in California were red varieties. Wineries typically want small red grapes to maximize the ratio of grape skin to berry. Big changes in temperature also help, as warm day time temperatures raise sugar levels while cool nights preserve acids.

The average price for all wine grapes was $589 a ton or $0.29 a pound, a record high. Grower prices ranged from $3,400 a ton in Napa to $335 a ton in Fresno. The average price of red wine grapes was $703 a ton and for white $541 a ton. It takes 2.7 pounds or about 620 grapes to make a 750 ml bottle of wine, so the value of the grapes in an average bottle of California wine is $0.78.

Higher grower prices for wine grapes may encourage new plantings in 2012. Some industry observers are predicting higher prices as a recovering economy stimulates demand for California wine faster than producers can respond.

Over 60 percent of California wine was sold for less than $7 a bottle in 2011. About 20 percent of California wine was sold was sold for $7 to $10 a bottle, and 20 percent was sold for $10 a bottle or more. In spring 2012 bulk California Chardonnay was selling for $8 to $10 a gallon, while similar Chilean Chardonnay was available for $6 a gallon (there are five bottles of wine in a gallon).

The US surpassed France and Italy to become the largest consumer of wine in 2010 (the US has five times more people than France or Italy). Some 345 million cases of wine were shipped in the US in 2011, up from 330 million cases in 2010. Italy overtook France as the world's largest producer of wine in 2010, producing five billion liters of wine. Italy exported 24 million hectoliters of wine in 2010, almost a quarter of the world's wine exports.

Wine critic Robert Parker developed the 100-point scale to rate wines, and is often called the Alan Greenspan of the wine market for his power over the prices of especially French Bordeaux wines. Parker says that the 2009 Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon is of extraordinary quality, comparable to the 1990 and 1982 vintages. Parker gave a Lafite 2009 a 99+ score.

Food. Expenditures for food consumed at home were $1.2 billion in 2010, up about three percent over 2009. About 52 percent of food spending was for food consumed at home. Americans spent $156 billion on alcohol in 2010.

The US spends $11 billion a year providing free and subsidized meals to 32 million school children. New rules announced in January 2012 require school meals subsidized by the federal government to include more fruits and vegetables and less salt and fat; the new rules are expected to raise the cost of school lunches by about $3 billion a year.

Journalist Tracie McMillan spent two months picking grapes and garlic in California, two months in Walmart's produce department, and two months at Applebee's, the world's largest sit-down restaurant chain. She compared her spending on food to her earnings in each job: 25 percent of her $10,588 annualized salary as a farm worker went for food; 17 percent of $11,487 at Wal-Mart; and 14 percent of $12,845 at Applebee's.

McMillan's major conclusion is that it is easier for low-wage Americans to eat poorly rather than to eat well. She notes the low earnings for picking peaches and garlic in California, the efforts to preserve the self-life of fresh vegetables at Walmart, and the use of pre-cooked food that is microwaved for customers at Applebee's. McMillan sees Americans as victims of government policies that allow the private sector to provide quantity rather than quality food. She urges government support for "a public food infrastructure," including urban gardens that produce fresh vegetables.

McMillan says that she was underpaid as a California farm worker and asked to sign a statement each week that she had received food-safety training, even though she had not. She argues that the highest priority to protect farm workers is to enforce existing laws so that farm employers do not routinely break labor laws and pay small fines when someone complains and enforcers collect fines.

Journalist Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, argues that the food system has experienced more changes in the past several decades than in the past several millennia, citing fewer and larger farms and genetic modification of plants and animals. Schlosser is especially critical of industrial meat production, arguing that a typical fast-food hamburger may contain pieces of over 1,000 different cattle from up to five countries.

Fair Trade. There are several organizations that certify food and other products to indicate they were produce in "fair" or "sustainable" ways. Fair Trade USA ( says that 70,000 retailers use its Fair Trade Certified label to indicate that the farmers and workers producing the labeled goods are paid "fair" prices and wages, work in safe conditions, produce products in ways that protect the environment, and empower and improve their communities. Fair Trade Certified products include coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, spices, flowers and grains.

Fair Trade says that farms must "meet and adhere to a rigorous set of social, environmental, and economic Fair Trade standards" to be certified, abiding by regulations governing child and forced labor, wages and working conditions, and chemicals and GMOs. Farms seeking certification are audited by Fair Trade USA's audit and certification partners, SCS and FLO-Cert. Fair Trade USA says that its activities have empowered over 1.5 million farmers in 70 developing countries to earn fair prices for their products in the global market, returning over $220 million in additional income to farming families.

McMillan, Tracie. 2012. The American Way of Eating. Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. Scribner.

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