‘A cautious time’: North Coast wine industry hopes for good weather as grape season enters key stage

This year’s North Coast wine grape season is entering a critical phase for gauging whether there could be too much fruit at harvest or not enough and whether some clusters may take too long to ripen before the fall rains.

That’s important because vintners shopping for fruit in California’s premium North Coast winegrowing region have been slowing or pausing grape purchase activity in recent months amid uncertainty on the direction of the economy while trying to replenish inventories after recent drought- and wildfire-impacted seasons.

Vine flowers for earlier-ripening grape varieties such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir now are in full bloom in the North Coast’s warmer appellations, such as Sonoma County’s Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. But bloom is just getting started in cooler winegrowing areas and for late bloomers like cabernet sauvignon.

How many of the flowers self-pollinate to form grape berries ― a stage called “fruit set” ― suggests the size of the crop this fall.

“It’s a cautious time,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. in San Rafael.

Overcast chilly days, wind, rain, frost and excessive heat all can disrupt pollination, preventing affected flowers from developing into grapes, called “shatter” or coulure in French.

“I am concerned about some varietals’ having a poor fruit set due to the cooler-than-average temperatures we’re having right now,” said Tyler Klick, viticulturist and co-owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management.

Some chardonnay vine blooms have reached fruit set in Alexander Valley, and Klick estimates most of the early-ripening varieties will reach set by mid-June. He was encouraged by several days with temperatures in the 70s and low 80s through June 4, but concerned of cool days with some wetness in the forecast.

“The sites that are in the right area are finishing up blooming this (past) weekend we’ll probably have a nice fruit set,” Klick said. “Areas that aren’t may not have had as good of a fruit set.”

Major wine grape varieties most affected by weather at fruit set include pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and less sensitive are chardonnay, syrah and zinfandel.

“I’m a little more concerned about pinot noir at this time,” Klick said.

One worry among seasoned North Coast grape crop watchers is a repeat of the cool summer of 2011, which hit yields of pinot noir particularly hard at a time the varietal wine was on the upswing. But this year, with more warmer spring days than in 2011 and even a few heat waves, vine development is more in line with the 2019 season, Klick said.

The 2019 North Coast wine grape crop was the region’s sixth largest on record, at nearly 505,000 tons. That was followed by the disastrous 2020 season, in which multiple massive wildfires cut short the North Coast harvest, resulting in a 45% annual drop in tonnage. Crops in the past two years were below average.

Bloom this year has come about 10 days later than average and over 20 days behind the pace of the drought-impacted past two seasons.

“Depending on the crop load, we may have to do some additional thinning to get the grapes to fully ripen if the season continues to track cooler and later,” Klick said.

Other shifts in vineyard tactics to adjust to the wetter year, Klick said, include leaving cover crops in the vine rows to take up excess soil moisture, rather than the drought approach of removing that vegetation to keep water in soil.

Until crop set for the 2023 season, the market for North Coast winegrapes has slowed, brokers said.

“We’re assuming that once we see the crop size, that will lead to some more buying activity from wineries,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner of San Rafael-based wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. “They’re just waiting to see what their sales numbers are.”

The opening months of the year have been active for many major grape varieties from Napa County and for Sonoma County chardonnay, according to Christian Klier, North Coast grape dealer for Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

But demand for sauvignon blanc has been strong, fueling big price growth earlier this year but slowing in recently as bloom and set loomed, Klier said. The 2022 county average price for the white grape in Napa was $2,925 a ton last year, and new contracts this year have been priced in the $5,000¬ $5,500 range; in Sonoma $1,913, and $2,600-$2,800; in Mendocino, $1,485, and $1,650-$2,000; and in Lake $1,317, and $1,700-$2,000.

“If it looks like a large crop, you will see the price go down a bit for those grapes remaining for sale in Mendo and Lake. I do not foresee that going down in Sonoma County, because what is available will be considered overage (on purchase contracts), and wineries will continue to pay for that. That’s how high the demand is,” Klier said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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