Oversupply concerns complicate otherwise smooth North Coast wine grape harvest

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As October began, the California wine grape harvest was running a few days behind the typical schedule, with picking over half-way done in the warmer inland regions and less than half-complete in the cooler coastal areas.

White grape varieties such as chardonnay and early-ripening reds such as pinot noir mostly have been picked, with picking in the North and Central coastal areas roughly 45% done, and Central Valley regions 55%-65% through, according to Novato-based grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co.

Nord Vineyard Services, which manages about 750 acres Napa and Sonoma counties, was about 45% done with harvest last week, according to Julie Nord. Its crews just started to pick reds such as cabernet in late September, around the time that the last clusters of whites were cut from the vines.

“The crop load in the major varieties, everything is down 20% from normal,” Nord said. “Last year was a great big year. We thought it was going to be a regular year.”

After a delayed start with rains into late spring, warm summer days led to picking of the first North Coast grapes for sparkling wine, which calls for fruit with lower sugar levels than for table wine, in mid-August.

Warm days helped to move the harvest along at a long, steady pace to allow for scheduling crews for picking and deliveries to wineries, Nord said.

“There is so much color this year,” she said. “Chardonnay has a beautiful golden color, maybe because of the long hang time. It was above 100 degrees for only a few days, and the vines don’t seem to show stress.”

The first cabernet sauvignon grapes Nord picked in late September have some dimpling, or raisining, in a few berries in the clusters, likely because of the long maturation time on the vine, she said. Nord expects to wrap this year’s harvest by early November.

What remains to come off vines in the North Coast and elsewhere in the state over the next month or so — namely, cabernet sauvignon — already is getting a cool reception from short- and longer-term buyers, according to Ciatti partner Glenn Proctor.

That’s because 2018 was a record-sized harvest and came at a challenging time when volume growth in wine sales overall had started to stagnate in early 2017.

Wineries crushed over 580,000 tons from North Coast vineyards last year, according to the California Grape Crush Report. That was up nearly 26% from 2017 and 18.0% above the five-year average. The 2018 California wine grape crop topped 4.281 million tons, up about 7% from 2017 tonnage and the five-year average as well as beating the previous bumper crop of 4.25 million tons in 2013.

Total volume shipments of California wine in the first half of this year slipped 2% from the first six months of 2018, with faster growth in U.S. food stores for wines retailing for over $9 a bottle, according to the Gomberg-Fredrickson Report. It points to the still pending sale of over two dozen lower-priced wines by Constellation Brands to E. & J. Gallo as creating uncertainty in the distribution side of the business. That report and others in the past year have fingered as a cause for the sales slowdown to be competition from craft spirits and alternative beverages such as seltzers.

“It has many buyers in the position where they have large amounts of 2018 bulk inventory and they are trying to balance their supply needs,” Proctor said. “That’s causing them to be less aggressive in purchases of grapes and bulk wine.”

Ciatti is one of a handful of companies that handle many of the deals on the spot market for excess grapes or wine. Such can be future tonnage a grower hasn’t locked into a purchase contract with a vintner, commitments to fruit a vintner no longer needs or wine in tanks beyond a vintner’s case sales projections.

Most California wine grapes are spoken for under multiyear purchase contracts, Proctor said. But the market has returned to a part of the cycle seen in past times of oversupply that sellers of grapes and wine are having a difficult time finding buyers.

“If you have available grapes now, no matter what region they’re in, it is difficult to sell them,” Proctor said. “If they are in Napa or Sonoma or Mendocino or Lake, there is not as much difference, but we are seeing some activity in Napa for late (season) spot deals.”

Two previous slumps in vintner demand for excess grapes and wine help show how these cycles form and how to navigate out of them, according to Proctor. A surge in consumer interest in ultrapremium wines led to a wave of vine plantings in the North Coast and elsewhere in the state in the late 1990s, and coupled with the dot-com recession of 2001 that contributed to significant oversupply of grapes and wine in that decade.

“Growers and vintners who have been through this for a long term and have tried to save money for a rainy day may have an easier time now than someone who entered the grape or wine market in the last five to seven years and is surprised there are tough times in our business,” Proctor said.

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

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