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The hottest grape variety on the North Coast? For wineries, sauvignon blanc is the in-demand fruit

The other white grape is having its day in the North Coast wine industry.

Local wineries just can’t get enough supply of sauvignon blanc grapes. The crisp varietal — typically with citrus notes along with a high acidity lately popularized by New Zealand imports — has been in high demand the past two years throughout Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

“We are seeing some of the highest pricing in the North Coast in the last 22 years,” said Christian Klier, a grape broker with Turrentine Brokerage in Novato, of the variety.

This past week, Klier had two open contracts for sauvignon blanc grapes for the 2022 harvest within the local region that resulted in a bidding war among wineries.

“Our coffers are empty,” he added. “There is a lot of competition for the fruit.”

Wineries are responding to customer demand for the refreshing white wine, from online orders to retail shelves. For example, sauvignon blanc was the only major wine varietal category that posted a 3% sales increase for the past four weeks of 2021 compared to the same period from the previous year, according to the market research firm Nielsen.

There have also been two significant moves in the local wine industry when it comes to the grape variety, both from producers known for their top-quality chardonnay.

Rombauer Vineyards in St. Helena purchased a Sonoma Valley vineyard last year where it intends to devote 90 acres to sauvignon blanc. Meanwhile, La Crema is ramping up its sauvignon blanc label that it started with a very small vintage in 2019.

“It’s growing very fast. It will likely grow at greater than 20% per year,” said Bob Knebel, president and chief executive officer of Rombauer, which sources its sauvignon blanc grapes from both Napa and Sonoma counties.

The newfound focus has benefited from the push New Zealand made to popularize the grape in the marketplace, when the Kiwis a decade ago set out to double wine exports to $2 billion annually. Almost 63% of New Zealand’s vineyards grow sauvignon blanc. The country, however, had a low yield on its fruit in 2021.

The varietal also has been popular with local producers. Ferrari‐Carano in Healdsburg, for instance, has had tremendous success with its fume blanc, a name for sauvignon blanc that has been aged in oak barrels. The winery won top white with it at the 2018 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Awards.

Vintners say the wine is very accessible for new consumers and can pair well with lighter food on warm days. Knebel contends chips and guacamole are a particularly enticing pairing with the varietal.

Rombauer found that about 10% of guests at its tasting room said they preferred sauvignon blanc to chardonnay, and that feedback moved the winery to produce the other white varietal.

“It was their feedback that really confirmed to us that it was appropriate to (branch) out,” Knebel said.

But it’s not just large and medium-sized wineries that are expanding. The grape variety also has attracted much smaller wineries. The reason? Sauvignon blanc grapes provide a short time frame from the crush pad to the bottling line and can be placed for sale early in the following year, just like rosé.

Adam Lee, who serves as winemaker at Bucher Vineyards, noted the 2021 vintage came into the winery on Sept. 3 and was bottled on Jan. 21.

“That’s a real cash-flow advantage,” said Lee, who also serves as consulting winemaker for J. Cage Cellars in Windsor, which makes its own sauvignon blanc.

John Bucher, who with his wife, Diane, owns Bucher Wines, knows that firsthand. He grows mostly pinot noir grapes from the Russian River Valley. In 2017, he had 5 acres of sauvignon blanc grapes within one vineyard that he was on the verge of abandoning, but then decided to keep growing the fruit.

“There were a couple of years it was hard to find a home for it,” Bucher said. “Last year, I had the most calls from wineries looking for sauvignon blanc. And I only have 5 acres that don’t produce very much.”

The consumer interest also allows wineries to bump up more premium pricing. The Bucher Wines sauvignon blanc 2021 vintage is priced at $38 a bottle, which is $3 more than the 2020 vintage, Diane Bucher said.

The demand that the Buchers have experienced also has been reflected in prices. Sonoma County in 2021 had sauvignon blanc grapes on average sell for $1,709 per ton, according to Turrentine Brokerage.

Ten years ago, the average price was $1,363 per ton.

The local wines can feature different tastes and notes within the various microclimates of Sonoma County, and overall represent more of a fruity style compared to the grassy aromas of the New Zealand wines.

“What we were trying to get with our La Crema sauvignon blanc was to get something very textual and rich and round, like the other wines we make,” said Mitch Davis, executive vice president of operations for Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa, which owns the La Crema brand. The varietal is also featured in the company’s Stonestreet and Matanzas Creek labels.

The grape variety has also been a focus for Lake County, where growers are working to stand out from their high-profile neighbors in Sonoma and Napa counties. Winemakers point to the Big Valley District on the west side of Clear Lake and the High Valley region on the lake’s east side as two prime locations to grow sauvignon blanc, which had an average price per ton of $1,232 last year in Lake County.

“People are responding to our style of sauvignon blanc. They are kind of getting a little bit (tired) of the grassiness of the New Zealand stuff,” said Adam Forni, director of authenticity at Dancing Crow Vineyards.

The family-operated winery has a Lake County vineyard at a 1,400-foot elevation at the base of Mount Konocti. It provides a sauvignon blanc grape that results in a wine with lemon and lime flavors and a hint of minerality, he added.

The winery sells its portfolio in 35 states with a price point between $15 and $20 a bottle for the varietal, which can attract younger consumers, Forni said.

“Millennials tend to be more open to new things,” he said. “Some of the older generations tend to be that they (just) like their cab and they like their chardonnay.”

Even with the renewed interest, the future growth may be tempered to some extent given that sauvignon blanc is a grape that can be overplanted and exceed consumer demand, Lee noted. That compares to pinot noir grapes that mostly grow well in certain coastal regions.

“It’s one of the easiest grapes to overcrowd and overplant in any area,” he said. “That’s part of what happened with merlot, and then you had a bunch of innocuous (stuff) out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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