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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, November 12, 2012, 6:25 am

North Coast winegrape harvest could be biggest in seven years

$100 million more in grape revenue than last year possible for Sonoma alone

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    A North Coast winegrape season that was not too hot, too cold or too wet combined with steady demand for grapes and wine following two short crops led to a rare conjunction in recent years, possibly the most tonnage since the 2005 peak year and a number of wineries eager to find room to buy as much as they could.

    Trefethen Vineyards workers harvest chardonnay grapes before dawn.

    Trefethen Vineyards workers harvest chardonnay grapes before dawn. (photo credit: Jon Ruel, Trefethen Vineyards)

    “The quantity was there, and it had the quality and it had the price and it had the demand,” said Brian Clements, partner of San Rafael-based Turrentine Brokerage, which has been busy trying to match growers with extra tons with wineries with enough tank and barrel space.

    The first official tally of tonnage and grape pricing won’t be known until the state releases preliminary figures in early February.

    At this point, pinot noir tonnage in Sonoma and Mendocino counties appears to have been well above average, thanks to 14 percent nonbearing acreage two years ago coming into full production, and chardonnay tonnage from Sonoma and Napa counties appears to also be above average, according to Mr. Clements. Cabernet sauvignon tonnage is above grower averages but likely not as high as in 2005. Sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County had average yields, but some yields were below average in Lake County.

    In Napa County, the expectation for 2012 tonnage was 30 percent above growers’ multiyear averages until grapes for sparkling wine started coming off vines a month and a half ago, and now the typical outlook is between a grower’s average and plus 10 percent, according to Jennifer Putnam, executive director of trade group Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

    “The quality is great, yields are really good, there was not much in the way of pest and disease pressures, and relationships (between grower and winery) went smoothly,” she said. “There’s a really buoyant feeling in Napa Valley.”

    Average yield from feedback the association has received is about four tons an acre, ranging from 2.5 an acre on hillsides to as many as seven tons an acre in a few places by the Napa River, she said.

    If the average yield estimate bears fruit, it would amount to about 174,000 tons, based on nearly 43,600 bearing acres of vines reported to the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner last year. That would put it between the sizable 2006 crop of nearly 153,000 tons, yielding 3.6 tons per acre, and the huge 2005 crop of 181,000 tons, yielding 4.3 tons an acre, according to the county crop report.

    By comparison, the cool season and rainy finish of the past two years significantly reduced Napa County crops. Last year’s harvest of almost 122,000 tons had a yield of nearly 2.8 tons per acre, and the 2010 crop weighed in at almost 139,000 tons, or 3.2 tons an acre.

    Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll District crushed 1,200 tons of estate-grown grapes split between red and white varieties. That was 11 percent more than the winery was expecting, putting the crop size about just above average, according to Jon Ruel, chief operating officer and director of viticulture and winemaking.

    “We, like a lot of people, are really happy about the quality and quantity,” said Mr. Ruel, also current president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

    Trefethen crushed only 800 tons last year for its own wines because a 40 percent shortfall in expected chardonnay tonnage — no thanks to smaller berries, fewer clusters and botrytis damage — forced the winery to short itself to fulfill existing grape contracts with a dozen other wineries. This year, Trefethen had 50 percent more chardonnay.

    “This year, the sales side of our company and many others in the valley are hungry for wine,” he said.

    Like the the postharvest forecast for the 2012 crop in Napa County, the outlook for Sonoma County tonnage also is in the 2005–2006 tonnage range, according to Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. In 2006, 216,000 tons were harvested, and in 2005, 230,000 tons, corresponding to yields of 3.9 and 4.2 tons per acre.

    The outlook for the 2012 crop is at least 220,000 tons, or an average of around 4 tons for each of the county’s nearly 60,000 bearing acres. The last two weather-hampered seasons in Sonoma County resulted in crop sizes of almost 167,000 tons last year, or 2.9 tons an acre, and 192,000 tons in 2010, or 3.4 tons an acre.

    Based on grape purchase pricing earlier in the 2012 season for a number of varieties and greater tonnage, Sonoma County growers could have $100 million more in grape revenue than last year, Mr. Frey estimated. The value of the 2011 crop in the county was $347 million.

    “It will have a big impact on the local grapegrowing community because people who have been cash-constrained will be able to make investments they have been delaying,” Mr. Frey said. “It won’t affect wineries for a year or two until they get the wines on the shelf.”

    The extra revenue will help growers replant some of the 3,000 acres of bearing vines taken out in the county in the past several years. It likely take a few years to get back to the 63,000-bearing-acre peak, slowed by nursery shortages for the next two years.

    “Unless the $20 and above (bottled wine) market increases a lot, there will not be significant demand for a lot more acres beyond that,” Mr. Frey said.

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