NORTH COAST -- The North Coast winegrape crop, swelled by the second-largest chardonnay harvest ever, bounced back after the devastating frost damage of 2008 to make the 2009 crop the third largest on record, according to state estimates released today.
The preliminary California Grape Crush Report, which the wine industry uses as a benchmark for grape purchase contracts, showed the North Coast harvest last year increased nearly 24 percent to 444,200 tons from 2008. County average prices per ton decreased from 2008 by 1.0 percent in Lake County, 1.3 percent in Mendocino County, 2.0 percent in Napa County and 2.8 percent in Sonoma County, boosting total reported North Coast crop revenue almost 21 percent to $1.036 billion.
“We knew it was big, but we did not think it was this big," said John Ciatti, partner of Ciatti Co. of San Rafael. "The value end of our business remains strong and growing and a larger vintage was needed -- but given the size of this vintage we may see some weakness in demand even in that growing segment. This crop will put additional pressure on the already struggling premium segment of the wine business."
Statewide, the winegrape crop was 3.7 million tons and $2.22 billion in total value based on an average price of $601 a ton, nearly reaching the record 2005 crop size of 3.76 million tons but besting the $2.17 billion total winegrape revenue for that year.
"The big crop was a boon for consumers and growers and wineries in wines under $15, although it has hammed the North Coast," said Brian Clements, senior partner and winegrape broker for Turrentine Brokerage of Novato. "Inventories of wine are in better shape than when the big 2005 crop hit."
By the brokerage's estimates on the 700,000-ton increase statewide for the 2009 harvest, California vintners will have to market 11 million more cases of chardonnay, 8 million cases of cabernet sauvignon, 7 million more cases of merlot, 3.5 million more cases of pinot noir and 3.8 million cases of pinot gris.
"Everybody in California is going to need to drink more chardonnay," Mr. Clements said, noting that sales growth for the variety overall has been 1 percent to 2 percent a year.
Nearly 121,000 tons of chardonnay, the North Coast's top winegrape variety by tonnage, were harvested last year, compared with 115,000 tons in 2006 and nearly 132,000 tons in 2005, according to the state report. Yet average prices per ton decreased last year 2.4 percent in Sonoma County to $1,960 and 3.0 percent to $2,288 in Napa County. That was the first price decreases for the variety in both counties since 2003.
However, these slight changes in county average prices reflect more the reality that an estimated 70 percent of North Coast grapes are sold under multiyear contracts, according to Mr. Clements.
"These prices in no way reflect spot-market pricing," he said.
For example, the 2009 crop report showed Sonoma County pinot noir average pricing off 4 percent to $3033 a ton from 2008, but spot-market pricing by the time of the harvest was around $1,700 a ton, according to Mr. Clements. Price movement of around 10 percent from year to year would signal that more grapes were coming to the spot market, he noted.