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Monday, August 23, 2010, 3:10 am

Wine: Growers in a waiting game; recent sales data encouraging

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    Winegrape gowers already are concerned about late ripening fruit caused by the summer’s cool weather.

    Now more and more are waiting nervously this year as a significant portion of potential buyers put off purchasing decisions as they read uncertain signs about consumer demand for higher-priced wine, according to grape market experts.

    “Wineries are being very, very cautious on the economy and future sales,” said grape broker Brian Clements of Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. “They’re choosing to wait until the very end to buy grapes.”

    Cabernet sauvignon grapes at Windsor Oaks Vineyards in Sonoma County barely show signs of ripening last week. (Jeff Quackenbush photo)

    Wineries typically enter new grape contracts around the beginning of each year after they’ve taken stock of the previous crush, and in 2007 and 2008 purchases continued throughout the season, he said. Yet once consumers started to panic about their spending as the U.S. economy worsened in late 2008, the early North Coast winegrape buying of 2009 ended quickly, leaving some growers with fruit left to sell at the last harvest.

    As a result, major grape and wine brokerages such as Turrentine and San Rafael-based Ciatti Co. have more coastal grapes for sale, while sales of inland California grapes going into brands selling for less than $10 a bottle have been active.

    “It’s a very conservative time, and no one wants to have a lot of inventory,” said Glenn Proctor of Ciatti.

    Some good news, the experts note, is the 2010 North Coast winegrape crop at this point in the season appears to be mostly average-sized in a number of areas.

    Industry experts have been encouraged by data showing improved off-premise ultrapremium wine sales in the U.S. for the first half of this year after the sharp decline in the first half of 2009 as the economic recession took hold.

    Sales of wine retailing for $15 to $20 per standard-sized bottle in U.S. stores improved 6.8 percent by volume and 6.4 percent by revenue in the four weeks ending July 24 from a similar timeframe in 2009, according to the latest figures from The Nielsen Co.

    Nielsen data for wines retailing for more than $20 a bottle increased 18.5 percent by volume and 17.9 percent by dollar value in the same timeframe. The price segment the strongest gain over the 12 months in bottle price of all the segments, or 13 cents per bottle on average.

    ***

    Dan and Katy Leese, fresh from their exit from 585 Wine Partners, partnered with Peter Kight, owner of Quivera and other wineries, to acquire Steelhead Wines of Dry Creek Valley and form sales and marketing firm V2 Wine Group in Sonoma. Katy Leese is general manager.

    Two years after Mr. Kight acquired the Tandem wine brand and brought along its winemaker and co-creator Greg La Follette, he is having Mr. La Follette phase out the Tandem brand in favor of a brand launched this year under the name of the winemaker. Trade accounts that carried Tandem will be offered the new brand. The wines retail for $30 for chardonnay to $50 for pinot noir.

    Wine People

    Kristy Melton

    Kristy Melton joined Clos Du Val in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley as assistant winemaker. She will be working with winemaker and Chief Operating Officer John Clews after the departure of co-founder and founding winemaker Bernard Portet. She also will be working with parent company Goelet Wine Estates in public and trade relations efforts, education programs and events.

    She was last at Saintsbury in Sonoma Valley in research, lab and winemaking roles.

    Rodney Strong Wine Estates near Healdsburg promoted Greg Morthole as winemaker in charge of the single-vineyard and reserve label programs as well as the Davis Bynum brand, which was acquired in 2007. Mr. Morthole started at Rodney Strong as lab director in 2005.

    Hired to fill Mr. Morthole’s associate winemaker role was Justin Seidenfeld, who was an enologist for Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville and managed custom winemaking at other Constellation Wines facilities Clos Du Bois, Simi and Estancia.

    Rutherford-based Huneeus Vintners hired Bob Tremain as vice president of sales. His 15-year career includes his last post as vice president for national accounts at Terlato Wines International.

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    Submit items for this column to Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256 or fax 707-521-5292.

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