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North Coast wine grape crop rebounds in 2021 after fires, COVID

The North Coast wine grape crop last year regained losses in heft and pricing caused by the region’s wildfires that cut short the previous harvest.

According to the first official tally released Thursday the 2021 crop value back was over $1 billion, still not back to the level of 2019, .

Analysis of preliminary figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed regional crop value jumped nearly 46% to $1.21 billion. That was much improved from the 45% tumble for the region’s crop value in 2020 to $833.5 million but still not back to the $1.5 billion crop of 2019.

“Prices in the North Coast recovered from where they were in 2019, erasing the anomaly of 2020 with the smoke challenges we worked through,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner in San Rafael-based grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co.

A key indicator of that snap back is Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, the county average for which cleared $8,000 a ton for the first time, jumping 29% from $6,212 in 2020. The average price was 7% above the five-year average, surpassing the previous peak of nearly $7,900.

“2020 was artificially low because of questions about smoke exposure, negotiations and cancellations,” Proctor said.

But the market for North Coast grapes hasn’t been affected by just smoke, as the supply of premium fruit from the North Coast had been approaching ample proportions compared with casegoods sales by 2019, according to Brian Clements and Christian Klider of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

“In normal market conditions, we shouldn’t have been here,” Clements said. “Unnatural factors with Mother Nature and COVID moved us back into a seller’s market, or a normal market.”

Because a number of vintners had eased off of securing North Coast grape contracts for the past few years amid concerns about oversupply and smoke in certain areas, there was more reliance on the market for wine in bulk, Klider said.

So when the shelter-at-home public health orders in the pandemic came and consumers dramatically ramped up buying of alcohol in spring 2020, the 29 million-gallon market for bulk wine in California got sucked down to 6 million gallons by year-end. The significant drop in the size of the 2020 North Coast wine grape harvest contributed to the bulk wine buying frenzy.

Now, North Coast cab, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc are in demand in bulk, Klider said.

“It’s the hottest sauvignon blanc market we’ve seen in years,” Clements said.

County average pricing per ton last year bested 2019 levels for Napa and Mendocino but not for Sonoma or Lake. Napa County’s average reached nearly $6,000 last year, 11% above the five-year average, and Mendocino County hit $1,755, 6% above average. Sonoma County at $2,646 was 1% below average, and Lake County was $1,746, nearly 4% above average.

North Coast tonnage last year came in just under 400,000 tons. That was up nearly 17% from the decade low of 343,000 in 2020 but still 13% under the five-year average and just ahead of the 379,000-ton rain-curtailed crop of 2011.

Meanwhile, California’s wine grape crop weighed in at 3.61 million tons, up nearly 6% from the year before and down by the same proportion from the five-year average.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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