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Monday, October 14, 2013, 6:30 am

Grape Market Insights: Winegrape harvest set to ‘go long’ in 2013

Reviewing the field for range of varietals

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    Joe Montana once whispered in the ear of Jerry Rice those words of San Francisco 49ers legend: “Go long!” The next thing you know, we had won the Super Bowl. (“We” means Joe, Jerry and I, although their part was admittedly more important than mine.) Ma Nature seems to be following a similar playbook both this harvest and last in the North Coast.

    Last year, Ma Nature succeeded in keeping everyone off-balance because the cluster counts were not especially large but the berries kept on sizing — getting larger. So we ended up with a surprisingly large crop across all varieties. Big crops are often followed by smaller crops, but Ma Nature seems intent on “going long” in 2013 as well.

    She has also added some wrinkles to keep the game interesting, sprinkling in some serious disease pressure and turning up the heat to bring lots of varieties to ripeness all at once.

    With many tanks still full from the bounty of 2012, that has put the blitz on winemakers, who are desperately looking for open tank space and daylight in the schedule for grape deliveries. Going long on crop size is hard on the whole vineyard and winery team right now, but it will give brands the juice they need to make their growing sales goals.

    Grape tonnage in excess of contract specifications are mostly selling at a discount to the contract price. This will give brands a little larger gross margin, which in turn, could help finance that extra sales and marketing push into the end zone.

    Let’s review the field, variety by variety.

    Cabernet sauvignon

    The market for bulk cabernet sauvignon has been strong all year for wine from Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties and more moderate for Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Much Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon on the bulk market may have been priced too high to work in the hot retail range of $12–$20 per bottle. We have been selling excess tons from both Sonoma County at $2,200–$2,300 a ton; Napa Valley, $3,000–$3,500;  Mendocino and Lake counties, $1,600–$1,800.

    The forecast for cabernet sauvignon wine in bulk is mostly sunny. Multiple buyers will be active but it is important to remember that demand continues to be price sensitive, that cabernet sauvignon in bulk often does not sell until the spring following the next harvest and that Cabernet Sauvignon in bulk usually requires time in barrels before it is sold.

    Chardonnay

    Supply is not large, but demand for last year’s chardonnay wine in bulk has been relatively slow all year.

    The 2013 crop is above average in most areas. Excess tonnage is selling now at around $2,000–$2,200 a ton for Napa Carneros and $650–$1,200 per ton in Sonoma County, depending on location and buyer.

    The 2013 bulk wine outlook for chardonnay could be tough. Volume will be up, and retail sales for chardonnay are growing slowly.

    Pinot noir

    The 2013 North Coast winegrape crop appears to be large, following the record-sized 2012 crop, particularly for Sonoma County pinot noir. (image credit: Turrentine Brokerage)

    The bulk market has been strong, although price-sensitive, for pinot noir from all North Coast appellations.

    The yield per acre is probably a little less than it was last year but newly bearing acres could make up the difference. We have sold excess tonnage from Sonoma County, by far the biggest pinot noir producer in the North Coast, in the $750–$1,500 a ton range.

    The bulk-wine forecast for pinot noir from the 2013 vintage is “sunny.” The chances are that retail sales growth will keep demand for bulk wine high, even after another large harvest. That’s especially for wine that work for pinot noir brands selling in the hot $12–$20-per-bottle range.

    Merlot

    Once the darling of consumers, merlot has fallen on hard times as pinot noir has taken its position as the most prestigious lighter red wine. The market for North Coast merlot wine in bulk has been soft all year. It has been a challenge to sell 2013 merlot grapes all over the state, even when they have been packaged with more desirable varieties. So far, there has not been a ready market for excess 2013 merlot grapes.

    The bulk wine outlook for the 2013 vintage of merlot is not looking good.

    Sauvignon blanc

    Demand for last year’s sauvignon blanc wine in bulk was relatively strong all winter and spring.

    The 2013 harvest is above average in volume in most areas of the North Coast. We have been selling excess tonnage at $800–1,700 a ton — depending on vineyard location and buyer — in Napa Valley and at or above $500 a ton in Sonoma County.

    The bulk-wine market forecast for 2013 sauvignon blanc is cloudy. A large crush could overwhelm demand on the bulk market.

    Challenges of 2013

    “Going long” always has risks as well as potential rewards, and this year’s North Coast grape harvest is no exception. It is a battle against disease and against the constraints of space and time. Most growers have done a great job staying on top of canopy management and spray regimes and are delivering high-quality fruit in a tough year. Despite the challenges, winemakers are optimistic about grape and wine quality from 2013.

    The grape and wine super bowl is not in the bag yet, but I think Joe had the right idea when he told Jerry to “Go long.” See you in the end zone.

    •••

    Brian Clements is partner and vice president of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage (turrentinebrokerage.com), a 40-year-old business-to-business marketer of winegrapes and wine in bulk and bottles.

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