San Joaquin County vintners seeking new voice to promote wine

San Joaquin County grape growers have begun fund-raising to create a new group to promote the region's wine.

The group, the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, would be an offshoot of the 5-year-old Central California Winegrowers.

Experts say the industry is growing across the country, even in spots as far-flung as Alaska and Hawaii. And every new winery is fighting for market share.

"Our valley is the only wine-growing region in California that does not have its own trade association to market, promote and defend its particular interest," said Peter Vallis, executive director of Central California Winegrowers.

Vallis said the existing organization, because it is a nonprofit and a public-benefit corporation, cannot do some of the things -- including lobbying -- that the new association could.

The new group would be a 501(c)5 agricultural commodity trade association.

Central California Winegrowers has paid for research with California State University, Fresno, held meetings to educate growers and has been "the de facto voice for the region," Vallis said. Its activities will not cease.

"Both organizations will work in tandem to effectively elevate the standing, profitability and sustainability of growing grapes and making wine from Stockton to the Tehachapi Mountains," Vallis said in a letter sent to growers.

The goal is to raise $15,000 by May 1 for legal costs, startup fees and some marketing.

Napa used to be the first and last word in American wine. But that's changing, with wineries branching into many parts of California, and the other 49 states.

Wine grapes produced in California had a value of $2.3 billion in 2006. Tops in tonnage were Fresno County at 566,400 tons, San Joaquin County with 505,703 tons and Madera with 486,375 tons. Stanislaus had 118,100 tons, Merced 113,136.

The valley's grapes sell for far less per ton than in Napa and other premium regions, but growers here are working to boost quality.

In climates where traditional wine grape varieties struggle, or perhaps won't grow at all, resourceful winemakers have adapted Old World techniques to a range of landscapes. They are using grapes native to North America, importing juice for their wines or turning to local fruit -- making salmonberry wine in Alaska, blueberry wine in Maine and pineapple wine in Hawaii.

"We are in the middle of an American revolution," said Daphne Larkin, who with her photographer husband, Charles O'Rear, recently came out with a new book documenting the phenomenon, "Wine Across America: A Photographic Road Trip."

"We kept hearing over and over, 'Watch out, California. You think your wine is so great, but just wait, so is ours,' " Larkin said.

Nationally, viticultural ven- tures have taken root from New York to Washington to Texas. Some are in unusual spots. During their two years and 80,000 miles of research, Larkin and O'Rear found win- eries in an old church, a cotton gin and a trailer.

For established wine country, the rise of rival regions has meant not only more competition, but also a bigger market.

"It potentially is great for wine consumers and ultimately great for the whole industry," said Jeff Bundschu, president of Gund-lach Bundschu in Sonoma County, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. "Having so many local options for people to go and taste wines closer to home will only heighten their awareness."

While wine states are everywhere, California remains king, accounting for 90 percent of the U.S. industry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.