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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, July 22, 2013, 6:30 am

More-challenging season tempers winegrape tonnage outlook

Active grape, bulk-wine buying signals growth

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    As the earliest-ripening North Coast winegrapes barely enter the home stretch for the season, the 2013 crop is expected to start coming in to wineries a few weeks earlier than normal, possibly be smaller than the record-setting 2012 crop yet seemingly welcomed with a bit more tepid though active buying activity than last year.

    Winemakers, growers and brokers are even more reluctant to make detailed projections of crop size at this point of the season than they usually are, given the surprise bounty of the 2012 crop. Yet what they see so far is putting smiles on their faces, though with more pause than last year, because of more challenging weather and operational conditions plus a much larger supply of excess 2012 wine available for sale in bulk.

    Melissa Stackhouse

    “We are set up for an amazing vintage — beautiful weather during winter and spring,” said Melissa Stackhouse, vice president of winemaking for J Vineyards & Winery, a sparkling and table wine producer in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. “A couple weather events in past weeks — a bit of rain and an eight-day stretch of extremely hot temperatures — had us scratching our heads, but overall, the future of this particular harvest looks bright”

    Veraison — the change in color of grape berries that signals ripening — came to J’s 250 acres of Russian River Valley vines first in the pinot noir-focused Nicole’s Vineyard on July 7. By mid-July veraison was noticeable in most of the producer’s vineyards.

    That has winemaker Melissa Stackhouse estimating that if the weather remains warm and dry, harvest of lower-sugar grapes bound for sparkling wines could begin in early to mid-August. Generally, maturity of North Coast grapevines are one to three weeks ahead of normal, experts say.

    Yet the tedious task of estimating crop size has just begun. Prices for bulk wine have moderated, particularly for Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, which was in the high $40-a-gallon range at this time last year and now is in the high $20 range, according to brokers. As wineries look to make room for 2013 grapes, more wine in bulk from 2012 is expected to come on the market as harvest approaches.

    Glenn Proctor

    Based on the number of clusters on the vines and the size of the grape berries at this point, it appears that North Coast tonnage will be largely “average” to “average-plus,” meaning in line with several-year averages, according to Glenn Proctor of San Rafael-based grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co. In some cases, there are more than the two clusters per vine shoot seen in the 2012 crop, yet growers are reporting berry sizes that are smaller than what was typical last year.

    “We do not see a humongous crop on the vine,” Mr. Proctor said.

    Like a number of wineries that encountered wine storage problems as grapes kept coming in during the 2012 harvest, J is adjusting its storage arrangement to prepare for more grapes as well as growing brands. The winery has purchased new barrels and added insulation and refrigeration to outside blending tanks, with the intent of using the tanks for preblending this year, rather than having to “rack” wine back and forth from the tanks, as what happened last harvest, according to Martin Guzman, production director.

    “It was a lot more work,” he said. The winery plans to increase white wine production, particularly for hot-selling pinot gris wine, by 5,000 cases to a production level of 50,000 cases annually.

    Brian Clements

    Many grape buyers are anticipating higher-than-average North Coast crop tonnage, but the similar cluster count this year to last year doesn’t necessarily mean back-to-back big harvests, like with pinot noir in 2005 and 2006, according to Brian Clements of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

    “I do not think a big crop is guaranteed this year by any means,” he said.

    Last year, the weather patterns aligned to support growth and maturity of grape berries, but rain early this season then strong wind and rain in late spring followed by a string of humid, hot days in June and more forecast triple-digit temperatures this month aren’t strongly supportive of berry size, according to Mr. Clements.

    These conditions have caused some instances of “shatter,” or thwarted vine flower pollination to produce grape berries, “sunburned” grape berries and mildew growth and risk of Botrytis rot.

    So far in 2013, it’s been the third-hottest year by mid-Napa Valley readings in Yountville in 20 years, trailing 2004 and 1997, noted Jim Verhey, who farms 60 acres of vines and oversees Premier Viticultural Services, whose clients own about 1,000 acres of vines.

    “All my guys say there is a fair amount of mildew and Botrytis potential,” he said.

    Spraying to fight mildew and extra costs for weed and vine canopy control together with having to increase wages to retain the best workers has escalated farming costs by 5 percent to 10 percent, according to Mr. Verhey.

    Yet, a good thing about the labor shortage is enough leaves were left on vines to prevent a repeat of 2010, when a late-season heat wave just after leaf removal led to huge losses of merlot and zinfandel in a number of vineyards, Mr. Proctor noted.

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