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Monday, June 25, 2012, 5:30 am

Grape Market Insights: Sonoma chardonnay buffeted by blustery bloom

Damage may reduce crop yield by 7%–10%; but price likely to hold

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    Brian Clements, Turrentine BrokerageAs a type “A” personality, I love harvest time the most — hate, but mostly love. It’s exciting and stressful and right up my strange little alley.  My next most favorite time is very different, quiet, almost hidden: bloom.

    Grapevines usually flower a couple of months after bud break, as daily temperatures rise. The stamens release the pollen that fertilizes the ovaries, which produce seeds and the grapes that encompass the seeds.

    Much of my world — obsessed with supply and demand — depends on how well this delicate, almost hidden, process of fertilization goes each spring. Excessive cold or heat, drought or disease can result in a poor crop “set,” smaller clusters and reduced crop size.

    For Sonoma County chardonnay this year, the main problem was wind, which can disrupt both pollination and damage the shoots. Evaluating widely varying reports of damage, I would guess that wind during bloom has reduced Sonoma County chardonnay crop levels by maybe 7 percent to 10 percent from what it might have been if bloom had been perfect.

    Bloom and set, of course, are only part of the yield equation, the part about cluster fullness. Total yield also depends on the number of vines per acre and clusters per vine as well as the size of individual berries in the clusters.

    Sonoma County chardonnay bulk wine marketI figure Sonoma County chardonnay cluster counts average slightly less than two per shoot. Two to three clusters per shoot is above average, and much fewer than two clusters per shoot is below average.

    Most growers and winery grape buyers are reporting about two clusters per shoot in northern Sonoma County and one to two clusters per shoot in the southern part of the county. This would suggest the likelihood of an average-sized crop or, perhaps, slightly less than average due to the effects of wind at bloom.

    Of course, it is too early to tell about berry sizing, which can offset looser clusters and have a big effect on total crop size. An average crop would be a pleasant change from last year’s small crop.

    Given strong demand, however, a big crop would be even better.

    Our company tracks bulk-wine inventories, which are the best indicators of total wine inventories. As the chart shows, we currently have about half as much Sonoma County bulk chardonnay wine listed for sale as we did last year at this time.

    The bulk market has been active all year. Prices have risen to $16 to $17 per gallon range for most Sonoma appellations and as high as $19.00 for Russian River chardonnay in bulk. 

    The grape market has been active all year too. Russian River Valley chardonnay nearly sold out at prices of more than $2,000 a ton. Prices for the variety from Sonoma Coast and Carneros remain strong at just below $2,000 a ton, and prices in other areas of the county are more than $1,700 a ton.  We still have buyers active at all price ranges offering both one-year and multiple-year contracts. 

    I get asked all the time what will happen to chardonnay pricing as we get closer to harvest. So far, my 2012 standard answer is, “Anything is possible, but prices are more likely to hold or go up than go down.”

    Pricing for Sonoma chardonnay should remain strong because luxury wine sales are slowly increasing, bulk-wine inventories are half of last year’s level, essentially no new acres vines are coming into production beyond replacement requirements and the 2012 crop appears to be headed toward a yield at or below average.

    Is that to be interpreted as a recommendation that growers wait longer to commit their fruit? No, it is not. In my experience, growers who play the game down to the wire to get absolutely the tip-top price per ton are also often the growers who have trouble collecting payment for their grapes. Now is the time to select a high-quality, financially secure buyer (or buyers) and close the deal. Then sit back and buckle your seatbelt for another harvest. I’m looking forward to it.

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    Brian Clements is vice president and partner of Turrentine Brokerage (turrentinebrokerage.com), a Novato-based marketer of winegrapes and bulk wine in California and abroad. The company produces proprietary data on global markets, bearing and nonbearing acres, projected tonnage for the next five years, bulk wine inventories, spot market grape prices and collateral value trends.

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