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Lodi wine industry displays growing influence

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2002 10:00 pm

You didn't have to look far to gain an appreciation of the growing influence Lodi is starting to wield during the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, an event roundly regarded as the Super Bowl of wine industry pow-wows.

The event, which ended its three-day run Thursday at Sacramento's palatial convention center on J Street, drew a record crowd in its fifth year running, organizers said.

The theme of this year's event, the changing world wine marketplace - and the effects it is having on American producers - was foremost on everyone's mind, said Craig Rous, of Lodi's Bear Creek Winery, who was in attendance Thursday.

Topping the list of issues of greatest concern were matters like the worldwide glut in wine grape production and the growing infusion of inexpensive foreign wine imports into the U.S. market, Rous said.

"The message we're hearing is that in order to survive, U.S. winemakers have to continue to improve quality while finding new ways to distinguish themselves among wine consumers," Rous said.

Longtime Lodi winegrape grower Jerry Fry agreed with that summation.

"For good or bad, like it or not, it's the situation we're faced with now," Fry said.

"We're not going to be able to offer the lowest prices, so we're going to have to depend on quality to find an advantage," he said.

The symposium has been an excellent opportunity for growers to establish a dialogue about which course they must collectively pursue in order to gain a competitive edge. Fry said.

New technology will play a critical role in the future of the industry, Fry added.

"This is a place where growers can come kick the tires and talk to people about the best solutions that are currently available to address their problems," he said.

It has been a long-held axiom in the wine industry that times of economic pressure spur innovation - and that certainly holds true for the present, with a number of ingenious new labor-saving devices being introduced at Symposium 2002.

Lodi inventor Claude Brown, who operates Ag Industrial Management, was on hand at his exhibit Thursday, demonstrating a new device from France which automates the process of cultivating soil around rows of grape vines.

Brown is the sole distributor in Northern California for the innovative new product.

"We've seen a lot of interest at the show this year in new technology," Brown said.

Lodi was also a very conspicuous presence in the organization of the event - and more than a few Lodians were active as speakers and moderators at a series of technical presentations offered at the symposium.

In one such event, internationally known wine consultant Bill Newlands held up Lodi's efforts as an example of how to successfully promote the growth and recognition of a wine-producing region, making particular notice of the growing number of wineries that proudly herald Lodi on their labels as the source of the grapes used to makes their wines.

Lodi is also getting new recognition of an entirely different variety.

According to Stuart Spencer, of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, representatives from wine industry organizations headquartered in a number of states, including New York and Washington, have expressed interest in the commission's work promoting Lodi wines - and the elegant new Wine and Visitor's Center it unveiled in Lodi in October 2000 - an undertaking which is increasingly being viewed as a model for success by other emerging wine regions.

The symposium attracted visitors from around the globe, which hailed from countries ranging from production powerhouses like Australia and France to nations representing major world wine markets, like Great Britain and Japan.

Also present for the first time this year were representatives from states like Michigan, which ranks as the eighth largest wine grape producer in the nation, despite a harvest of fewer than 1,500 acres last year, and Ohio, which has only about 250 acres of vineyards in production.

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