Viticulturists trained at U.C., Davis have some high-tech methods for early season crop estimates. These techniques involve infinitesimal calculus and the molecular weights of certain tannin compounds.

We Fresno State Bulldogs, on the other hand, walk miles of vine rows, look at a lot of vines and talk to a lot of growers. Our reports are not as cool looking as U.C. Davis, but at least we get some exercise.

Well, I have been getting my exercise recently in Sonoma County pinot noir vineyards. It looks to my Fresno State--trained eyes that in most areas of Sonoma County there are mostly two grape clusters per shoot. (A grape shoot is green tissue growing vertically out of a bud, usually located on a two-bud spur on the main arm or cordon of a grapevine.)

Due to cool weather, vine growth and cluster development appear to be about two weeks behind normal. Of course, "normal" is a fuzzy concept too. In the wine business, it means "that which never happens." So far, however, the Sonoma County pinot noir grape crop appears similar to last year. Trouble is, Mother Nature always keeps some tricks up her sleeve, and it’s never over until it's really over.

Why are growers, grape buyers, winemakers and financial folks so concerned about crop size? Crop size has a dramatic effect on quantity, obviously, quality and price.

Last year, was a tough growing season for Sonoma County pinot noir. It was an especially cool year, which is hard on a variety typically grown in sites that are cool even in warm years. Then Mother Nature suddenly turned up the heat and scorched the grapes.

The total Sonoma County pinot noir; delivered to wineries in 2010 was 29,791 tons, according to data for District 3 in table 2 of the final California Grape Crush Report. That was down 7.1 percent from 2009 and down 6.7 percent from the five-year average of 31,826 tons.

But even with major sunburn damage, the crop was still the fourth-largest ever delivered. That tells us that estimates of the sunburn damage were high or the crop was bigger than estimated. There are also new Sonoma County pinot noir acres coming on line. In fact, non-bearing acres are around 10 percent. The good news is most winemakers are reporting that -- despite the tough season -- the 2010 Sonoma County pinot noir wines are lasting quite good.

In regard to the pinot noir supply and demand picture, after the movie "Sideways," Sonoma County pinot noir bulk wine sold very quickly and prices shot up. That changed in 2009 as the recession lingered, restaurant sales declined and consumers traded down. Most spot-market Russian River pinot noir grapes once selling for more than $3,500 a ton were then worth $2,000 a ton -- if the grower were lucky. Sonoma County pinot noir, the sweetheart of the wine business the previous few years, became hard to sell.

We are not back to the glory years of surging demand, but things are slowly getting better.

One key indicator is the market for wines in bulk. Turrentine Brokerage currently has about 100,000 gallons of Sonoma County pinot noir listed for sale. That might sound like a lot, but last year at this time we had 300,000 gallons for sale -- and fewer buyers.

This leads to the final, and I believe the most pressing, issue for 2011 Sonoma County pinot noir: spot-market grape pricing. The spot market is for any grapes not under long-term contracts but are currently available in 2011 for purchase. That said, the inventory of available Sonoma County pinot noir grapes is moderate, meaning it’s still mostly a buyer’s market. But prices, and buyer interest, are on the rise.

So far in 2011, the Sonoma County pinot noir crop appears to be about "average." We have early interest from multiple buyers for Sonoma Coast and Russian River pinot noir with a few of those buyers considering, and some even offering, multi-year contracts. However, we still face a sluggish economy and wine consumers focused on bargains.

We continue to walk the vineyards, Bulldog-style, and to stare at grape clusters attempting to guesstimate the quantity, quality and pricing of the 2011 Sonoma County pinot noir grape crop. I wonder what old Mother Nature has up her sleeve this year?


Brian Clements is vice president and partner of Turrentine Brokerage (www.turrentinebrokerage.com), a Novato-based marketer of winegrapes and bulk wine in California and abroad.