NORTH COAST - The 2009 winegrape crop in the region now is thought to be not as big as had been feared earlier in the growing season, but it is big enough for grapes still awaiting a home.
"In general, the crop will be bigger than last year but close to average because last year was so poor," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "Early on, we saw potential for a big crop but we're backing off that because there seems to be a lot of shatter and the clusters are not sizing up."
Though this year started with warm temperatures and little rain, showers in February and May filled vineyard reservoirs and soil, according to Mr. Frey. The late rains have called for more vine canopy management, but cool temperatures through June, combined with new water-management procedures instituted with new state regulations for protected fish, have helped to stretch water reserves.
The cool weather, however, came as vine flowering was beginning in May and prolonged that stage, impairing pollination and grape cluster development, which is called "shatter."
Major winegrape varieties most affected appear to be merlot, cabernet sauvignon and some pinot noir, according to Glenn Proctor, a partner of San Rafael-based grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co. Chardonnay appears to have the most consistent yield this far in the season.
"The crop from our perspective does not look as big as we thought on the North Coast," Mr. Proctor said. "I had a buyer ask if 2009 would be the size of 2005, but I said, 'No, it's not small, but it's not going to be huge.'"
The U.S. Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service earlier this month forecast the 2009 California winegrape crush could weigh in at 3.30 million tons, which would be on par with the 3.25 million tons crushed in 2007 but less than the record 3.76 million tons in 2005.
Mr. Proctor said grape crop forecasting is challenging, even late in the season. He pointed to the August 2008 statistics service forecast of 3.40 million tons for the crop that year, but a host of weather and other challenges limited the harvest to 3.06 million tons. Earlier this month Allied Grape Growers had estimated 3.45 million tons for 2009.
Wineries that earlier this year were actively looking to buy fruit that hadn't been locked into multiyear contracts late in 2007 and at the beginning of last year are holding off on making deals for more fruit from the more expensive regions, particularly for pinot noir and Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, according to grape market experts.
"We have not experienced much buying activity in the Central or North Coast regions of California," said Allied Grape Growers President Nat DiBuduo earlier this month.
Pinot noir has been a wine-list favorite at fine restaurants, which have been struggling in the past several months, according to Mr. Proctor.
"When many of those restaurants shut down, wineries serving that market have had challenges adjusting prices to appeal to value-minded consumers because of higher costs of goods sold from contracts for newer-planted grapes signed in high-demand times," he said.