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Also: Foster's targets May demerger for; Ascentia names Kenton as CEOSome winegrape crop watchers were expecting 2010 North Coast tonnage to be 10 percent to 30 percent below the size of the big 2009 harvest because of late-season heat and rain damage.

Yet at 425,781 tons, the 2010 North Coast crop was only 4.7 percent smaller than the big 2009 harvest, according to the first version of the California Grape Crush Report, which will be adjusted in coming months as more data come in. Even with the challenges last year, the region's crop was larger than the frost-bitten 2008 harvest of 358,642 tons.

Decreases of 10.7 percent and 3.1 percent in Sonoma and Napa counties, respectively, offset 10.2 percent and 0.5 percent increases in smaller-scale producers in Mendocino and Lake counties. [Comparisons of tonnage and pricing for North Coast counties and major varieties for several years are posted at NorthBayBusinessJournal.com/29605.]

Tonnage increases in inland California regions were good news for producers of in-demand wines retailing for less than $20 a bottle, and North Coast decreases were somewhat welcome for producers, according to Brian Clements of Turrentine Brokerage.

"That was embraced by wineries that had been saying to growers the least amount of fruit they can deliver is great," he said.

The extent of sunburned Sonoma County chardonnay and zinfandel grapes were reflected in tonnage decreases of 10.7 percent and 31.3 percent, respectively, below that of 2009.

One of the tough challenges for chardonnay growers in California coastal regions has been finding buyers at prices high enough to cover long-term farming costs, according to Glenn Proctor of Ciatti Co.

Regional revenue was $902.6 million, a decrease of 13.6 percent, or $142.6 million, from 2009. Contributing to that were decreases in county weighted-average prices per ton of 6.6 percent in Napa to $3,068, 9.6 percent in Sonoma to $1,951, 8.8 percent in Lake to $1,129 and 17.1 percent in Mendocino to $1,092.

Mr. Clements pointed out that county average prices have more to do with the 70 percent to 80 percent of North Coast grapes that are under multiyear contracts. Grapes for sale on the spot market have been selling for significantly less in the past two years, particularly those going into lower-priced wines.

"Major North Coast varieties in the bulk market are doing better in the bulk market than they have been, and more are talking about what they need for this year than in 2010," Mr. Clements said.

Particularly, there's interest in Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, Russian River Valley chardonnay and pinot noir as well as zinfandel, especially from Dry Creek Valley. Real grape buying activity is expected to start when vines start budding this spring.

"It does feel better at this point in the season than at the same point in 2010," he said.

Grape contract negotiations in Napa and Sonoma counties as well as in Lodi are starting to explore how much of farming costs can be pruned to meet the desired wine quality, according to Mr. Proctor.

"Some are saying, 'If we do not hand-pick we will sell it to you for a couple hundred dollars cheaper per ton,'" he said. "They are asking what is needed to maintain quality and what things do not."

***

Australia-based beverage giant Foster’s Group on Tuesday announced it wants to complete a demerger of its wine business, called Treasury Wine Estates, in May.

Two years after starting a strategic review of the organization, Foster’s on Tuesday laid out a timeframe for spinning off Treasury as a separate company. If approved by shareholders in late April and Australian courts in May, the demerger of the wine business would take effect in May with the trading of Treasury’s shares on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Treasury’s portfolio includes Napa Valley wine brands Beringer, Etude, St. Clement and Stags’ Leap, Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma Valley and imports Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Rosemount, Wynns Coonawarrra Estate and Castello di Gabbiano.

Wine unit sales in the first half of fiscal 2011, ended in December, totaled the equivalent of 18 million 9-liter cases, a decrease of 5.9 percent from a year before, and A$923.7 million, a 2.7 percent decrease on a constant-currency basis.

Treasury is reviewing potential cost savings over two years after the split from "acceleration of wine making and vineyard operations efficiencies, optimization of marketing and promotional spending, continued process improvements, reduction in global administrative and selling costs, and benefits arising from the implementation of new IT systems."

***

Lion Nathan USA acquired Sonoma-based MacRostie Winery and Vineyards on Feb. 7, giving the Larkspur-based importer its first California-based wine brand.

Steve MacRostie, 65, started the eponymous winery in 1987. The winery is known for Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and includes vineyard-designate wines from the Wildcat Mountain Vineyard.

Mr. MacRostie was looking for an exit strategy in recent years, according to Lion Nathan. He and longtime winemaker Kevin Holt will continue to guide the brand.

Lion Nathan's portfolio includes Argyle from the Willamette Valley, Wither Hills from New Zealand and St. Hallett from Australia’s Barossa Valley.

***

Benson Marketing Group of Napa launched a social marketing service called Mission Control.

For $1,500 monthly per brand, Benson will manage a winery's social media presence. That includes monitoring brand-related discussions, guiding winery staff on the what, how and when of captivating content, seeking "opportunistic posting" in discussions on wine-related travel or purchases and simultaneous posting of content to all social media.

Benson started the service in January with new clients such as Robert Mondavi Winery and Redtree Wines as well as existing clients J. Lohr Vineyards & Winery and the Loire Valley Wine Bureau.

***

Santa Rosa-based Vineyard & Winery Services Inc., publisher of the trade magazine Vineyard & Winery Management, acquired two 3-year-old wine competitions. The International Women’s Wine Competition will be held in November, and the NextGen Wine Competition for Millennial Wine Drinkers, in June. The company already puts on Grand Harvest Awards, International Eastern Wine Competition and West Coast Wine Competition.

***

The 10th annual Mendocino County Pruning Contest was rescheduled to the morning of March 1 at Jaxon Keys Winery because of rain, according to the sponsor Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission.

***

Wine PeopleClick here for photos.

Acentia Wine Estates of Healdsburg named Mike Kenton as chief executive officer, according to Lou Giraudo, chairman of the parent company formed in 2008 by Mr. Giraudo's San Francisco private-equity firm GESD Capital Partners and New Jersey-based alcoholic-beverage marketer W.J. Deutsch & Sons.

W.J. Deutsch attacked management of Ascentia in a lawsuit early last year that was dismissed in October.

Previously, Mr. Kenton was president and CEO of Artesa winery in Napa Valley and its marketing agent, Aveníu Brands of Baltimore, Md.

Jim DeBonis, who was CEO of Ascentia since 2008, is now vice chairman for corporate matters and remains a member of the board.

Tonnellerie Française Nadalie USA in Calistoga hired Greg Sitton, formerly in sales and marketing for M.A. Silva Corks USA and Clos Du Bois. His sales territory covers south Sonoma County, Livermore, the Central Coast and Southern California.

Graton-based Purple Wine Co., producer of the brands Avalon, Mark West, Rock Rabbit, Bex and Four Vines, named Bill Grant, former co-owner of Four Vines, as senior vice president of marketing. Purple Wine acquired the 125,000-case-a-year Four Vines brand in October.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers hired Erin Bright Russell as coordinator of the trade group's 2011 Wine & Grape Expo, set for Nov. 16. Her family operates Rancho Chimiles vineyards, and she has event-planning experience.

Cork Supply USA of Benicia brought on Chris Correia as a sales consultant. His background includes several years at Franciscan Estates and a wine glass supplier.

Benson Marketing Group hired intern Kelsey Quickstad in the Napa office to bolster the firm's new digital media services.

Three of the six who passed a recent exam to become members of Napa-based Court of Master Sommeliers are from the North Bay: Jason Heller of Bond Estates, Oakville; Matthew Stamp of The French Laundry, Yountville; and Brian McClintic of Treasury Wine Estates, Napa.

•••

Submit items for this column to Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256 or fax 707-521-5292.

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