Winery, grower cooperation during rainy harvest prevents higher 2011 crop losses, experts say
NORTH COAST — The first official tally of the impact of the stormy 2011 winegrape season is in: North Coast vintners crushed 11.8 percent fewer tons last year than in 2010, and the value of the 2011 crop at nearly $848 million was 6.9 percent smaller than the year before, despite average per-ton prices rising 5 percent to 10 percent last year, according to preliminary state figures released today.
“The crop was down from last year, but it is probably not down as far as some predicted in November and December, said Glenn Proctor, partner of San Rafael-based wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. “As we went into January we felt it was not as bad, as growers started reporting crop size.”
The 2011 California Grape Crush Report, an annual benchmark for grape sales contracts, chronicles three interwoven wine industry storylines for the year, according to Brian Clements of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.
“It tells the story of increasing (bottle) sales,” he said. “It tells the story of Mother Nature impacting crops. It tells the story of wineries and growers working together to get the crop in at lower-than-contracted sugar levels.”
A number of grape purchase contracts stipulate target levels of sugar in grape berries and other quality aspects for fruit that a winery will accept from a grower. Without irrigation or rain, cluster berries start raisining — lowering cluster weight — and sugar levels increase.
Fewer but heavier lower-sugar clusters have partly offset large reductions in yield because of the weather, Mr. Clements speculated.
2011 crop drop equal to 3.5 million North Coast cases, 17 million statewide
North Coast tonnage fell to 378,000 tons last year from nearly 429,000 in 2010. That 50,600-ton decrease would be like removing from store shelves, restaurants and tasting rooms almost 3.5 million 9-liter cases of wine, based on the industry rules of thumb of 165 gallons of wine per ton and 2.4 gallons per case.
“Most wineries have worked through their inventories by discounting and bulk sales (of wine),” Mr. Clements said. “Now there’s demand for bulk wine and grapes.”
Winegrape tonnage statewide last year decreased 6.9 percent to 3.34 milli0n tons from the 2010 crop, making the 2011 crop the state’s fourth-largest behind those of 2010, 2009 and 2005. The 246,000-ton decrease is equivalent to nearly 17 million cases of wine coming off the market. The value of the 2011 California winegrape crop slipped 7.0 percent to $1.63 billion from 2010, although the statewide average price rose 11.1 percent to $634.
“Generally across the state, we saw supply down and prices up,” Mr. Proctor said.
Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc tonnage hit hard
The biggest hit to crop size from the early-season rains, cool season and more rain at harvest was in Sonoma County and for that winegrowing region’s top variety, chardonnay, according to the state report. It was the county’s smallest chardonnay crop in seven years.
Total Sonoma County tonnage fell by nearly 26,000 tons, or 13.5 percent, to 166,000 tons from nearly 192,000 tons in 2010. Napa County tonnage shrank by 12.7 percent to 121,000 from nearly 138,000 a year before. Following harvest, industry crop-shortage estimates ranged from 20 percent to one-third.
Chardonnay tonnage in the county dropped 21 percent to 52,000. The variety was hit hard throughout the North Coast, off 22.2 percent in tonnage, with chardonnay off 23.1 percent in Napa County 23.7 percent in Mendocino County and by just more than one-third in Lake County.
Another major North Coast white grape variety hurt badly by the spring and fall rains was sauvignon blanc. The 30,500 tons crushed last year were the lowest in six years, down 20.4 percent from 2010 and off by 28 percent and 32 percent in Napa and Sonoma counties, respectively.
“Napa and Sonoma was was no surprise, but we were prepared for that crop to be down 35 percent to 40 percent because of the reports we were getting from growers,” Mr. Clements said.
Lake sauvignon blanc escaped some of the bad weather to the south, so 2011 tonnage was only off by four-10ths of a percentage point, topping Sonoma in tonnage for the first time.
Zinfandel bounces back
A top North Coast variety that actually increased in tonnage last year was zinfandel, up 11.1 percent in tonnage in the North Coast. In Sonoma County, zinfandel tonnage was up 20.3 percent to 13,000 tons. Yet that reflects a bounceback for the variety after the devastating 2010 late-season heat wave that “sunburned” a number of varieties, particularly Dry Creek Valley zin, Mr. Clements observed. Sonoma zin tonnage of nearly 11,000 in 2010 was more than one-quarter lower than the average of the previous five years.
Vintners seek purchase, planting contracts as grape prices rise
As reported previously, grape prices rebounded last year as the smaller size of crops became apparent, and that is reflected in the crop report. Weighted-average prices per ton increased 10.2 percent to $1,211 in Mendocino, 5.1 percent to $1,189 in Lake, 4.9 percent to $2,052 in Sonoma and 6.9 percent to $3,284 in Napa.
However, the fewer tons crushed put fewer dollars in growers’ pockets, in spite of the higher prices.
Some of the price jumps seen for certain varieties and North Coast counties seen in the report may reflect more of how many acres of vines are covered by multiyear grape-purchase contracts than current demand, according to Mr. Clements.
For example, the 1 percent and 3 percent improvement in the price for Sonoma and Napa chardonnay, respectively, suggests most of that fruit is under contract, because a number of buyers were out looking for the grapes late last season, he noted. Yet, the nearly 9 percent price rise in Sonoma merlot suggests that the recognized tightness in cabernet sauvignon last year and the need for more merlot to blend with cab.
The number of new vineyard acres coming into commercial production and rising sales is exacerbating grape and bulk-wine shortages throughout the state, Mr. Clements said.
That’s leading to annual, multiyear and planting contracts, mostly in the larger-yield California winegrowing regions, he said. There is some early interest in contracts that call for growers to plant more vines in the North Coast, which has become more complicated with recent action by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to limit clearing of trees on hillsides for vineyards.
The final version of the crush report is set for release next month, followed by further corrections in July.
Total winegrape revenue
|Source: California Grape Crush Report, tables 2 and 10.|
North Coast winegrape tonnage
|Source: California Grape Crush Report, table 2.|
North Coast weighted-average price per ton
|Source: California Grape Crush Report, table 10.|
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