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Sonoma County wine grape pricing rises, partly stabilizes in early 2021, reversing oversupply

North Coast vineyard operators caught a glint of hope Thursday for better sales of grapes and at higher prices this year, even while dealing with the continued threat of the coronavirus to their crews and reeling from the devastating impact of the wildfires on sales of 2020 fruit.

But it was a bittersweet forecast at Sonoma Winegrowers’ Dollars & Sense annual seminar. The looming oversupply of grapes and wine that was crushing prices and leading to more unsold fruit a year ago was dramatically reversed by a surge in demand for beverage alcohol from consumers sheltering at home during the pandemic, to be reduced much further by wildfires up and down the West Coast, according to grape and wine broker Glenn Proctor, partner of Ciatti Co., speaking at the Sonoma Winegrowers’ Dollars & Sense annual seminar.

But the closing of so many fine-dining establishments — many permanently — during the pandemic and the jump in sales of grapes for off-premise markets such as grocery stores has bifurcated demand and pricing for grapes and wine in bulk between interior California grapes meant for mass-market brands and coastal grapes bound for higher-priced brands, he said.

“We think activity is going to be better,” Proctor said at the event, held virtually this year.

The California wine grape crop last year was already set to be up to 12%–17% smaller because of weather conditions earlier in the season, before the late summer wildfires throughout the state. Ciatti estimates that 165,000–325,000 tons of wine grapes were rejected or unsold last year, with 100,000–200,000 tons just in the acutely quality-conscious North Coast. That’s partly based on Sonoma Winegrowers’ survey of its members that found 50,000 tons in the county were affected.

But Proctor acknowledged that the full impact of likely won’t be fully known.

So Ciatti is estimating the 2020 California wine grape crop that was harvested was 3.53 million tons, down from the average of 4 million tons in the past several years. The first official tally of the 2020 California crop is set for release Feb. 10 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“What defined ‘20 and what's going to define ’21 is really this uncertainty about needs as some of these wineries try to understand the new normal, whether their sales are going up or down,” Proctor said. “And not all are being affected equally.”

The reduction of wine available for sales between vintners in bulk dropped from upwards of 20 million gallons a year ago to less than half by mid-year and further as the fires raged. That sent pricing for available Napa and Sonoma bulk wine up by roughly one-quarter, but not even to half the peak before the record 2018 and sizable 2019 harvests, Proctor said.

“It looks like there's a little more strength in some of those varieties that were more affected by smoke exposure,” he said.

Sonoma County is “well positioned” to be a go-to source for the libations of a celebratory consumer after the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for younger adults, according to Ray Isle, senior wine editor of Food & Wine magazine.

“What Sonoma County can do in terms of wine is certainly developed, and certainly people know about it,” Isle said.

The 100% Sustainable vineyard certification project launched by Sonoma County Winegrowers in 2014 was followed in the next five years with a 100-year family farming resiliency plan, new Center for Ag Sustainability, a certification logo for bottle labels and last year’s Climate Adaptation Certification program.

Analysis of farming plans for first 20 vineyard sites in the climate certification pilot program found that the sites without any different practices were sequestering, or locking in the soil, an average of 4.34 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per acre annually, Laurel Marcus of Napa-based California Land Stewardship Institute, which is running the program, said at the seminar.

The new climate farm plan called for changed vineyard practices such as planting native riparian plants, hedgerows and upland trees in the vineyard, adding more soil amendments such as leaf litter and compost, planting more cover crops, and undertaking conservation tillage (leaving 30% of the ground cover)

Those changes were projected to sequester 5.5 metric tons an acre per year, an increase of 1.16 metric tons.

For the 1,883 acres in the pilot study, that incremental annual sequestration equates to 2,184 metric tons of greenhouse gases, the emissions from 472 passenger vehicles or 5.42 million miles traveled.

Funded by a California Department of Food and Agriculture grant, a demonstration project is underway in a Dutton Ranch Corp. vineyard in Russian River Valley. Roughly five pilot program growers have planted or are preparing to put in hedgerows and other foliage in their climate farm plans, Marcus told the Business Journal.

The institute, which also runs the Fish Friendly Farming certification program in the North Coast, is applying for another grant to fund more projects. Costs for participating in the program are set to be finalized in February, Marcus said.

But the Sonoma grape grower trade group is looking to go beyond sustainablility and climate certification. On Thursday it launched an agriculture accelerator project it is calling Sonoma VITS, for Vineyard Innovation Through Science.

“We're gonna create our own ‘Shark Tank’ of vineyard experts and subject-matter experts to help support innovation, technology and science projects of pilots coming to Sonoma County, to our vineyards to help us create vineyard resiliency for the next 20 to 50 years.”

Such advances include ultrasonic sensors for automated monitoring of vine canopy and cutting-edge treatments for vine-withering Pierce’s disease.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, told seminar-goers that he’s seeking reauthorization of a federal program that would indemnify crop losses from the 2020 wildfires and other disasters. On Monday Jan. 11, he introduced House Resolution 267 to extend the Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnification Program, better known as WHIP.

“Our district needs all the tools possible to recover from this fire situation,” he said.

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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