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North Coast vintners and growers said they brought in significantly less grape tonnage last year and grape pricing has been increasing, and that’s what is seen in the newly released first official look at the 2015 California winegrape harvest.

The North Coast winegrape harvest — including Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties as well as the portion of the region in western Solano — was estimated to be 418,011 tons last year, down by a quarter from 2014 and nearly 18 percent from the five-year average, according to figures released Feb. 10 by the National Agriculture Statistics Service (see data charts: bit.ly/1V4HGk8) and estimates by Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

With the lower tonnage but higher grape prices, the value of the 2015 North Coast crop was roughly $1.13 billion, down about 22 percent from 2014. Statewide, winegrape revenue dropped 15.7 percent to $2.52 billion because of a smaller coastal crop and 11.2 percent drop in average price, mostly for grapes bound for budget wines. California tonnage was 3.7 million, down 5.0 percent from 2014 and on par with the 3.7 million-ton 2009 crop.

“This is a time when for bottles over $10 [retail] the sales are increasing, and there is a lot of confidence,” said Brian Clements of Turrentine. “We didn’t need four big crops. We didn’t get that, but we didn’t need it to be down as much as it was.”

North Coast winegrape crops were in the 550,000- to 600,000-ton range in 2012–2014. The 2011 season, with cool weather and rain at harvest, cut the North Coast yield to less than 400,000 tons and left vintners scrambling for extra grapes and wine. Statewide, winegrape tonnage for 2011–2014 were 3.35 million, 3.89 million, 4.25 million and 4.02 million.

“It was not drought-related, because people were still able to irrigate,” said Steve Dorfman, partner and broker with San Rafael-based Ciatti Co. “It was more weather-related, because the weather during [crop] set was not as optimum as it could have been.”

“Set” is the viticultural term for when pollinated vine flowers shift to fruit production. Grape varieties respond differently to higher wind, cold, heat and moisture, leading to fewer than expected tons per acre.

Though winegrape tonnage was off in Napa and Sonoma counties each by 29 percent last year, a drop equivalent to 8.6 million cases of wine, average countywide pricing was up by 7.3 percent to $4,237 a ton in Napa and by 4.9 percent to $2,403 in Sonoma, according to the California Grape Crush Report. That was 14.1 percent higher than Napa’s five-year average and 8.2 percent higher for Sonoma’s. Mendocino County’s average inched up 1.0 percent to $1,494, still 6.5 percent above the five-year trend, and Lake County’s went up 4.7 percent to $1,589, 12.1 percent higher than the pace.

Winegrape tonnage totaled 181,130 in Sonoma, down 29.2 percent from 2014 and 20.6 percent below the five-year average; 123,320 in Napa, down 29.3 percent and off 20.7 percent from average; 57,292 in Mendocino County, down 7.7 percent and below average by 12.1 percent; and 38,433 in Lake County, virtually unchanged at 0.8 percent below 2014 and 1.3 percent higher than average.

‘PARADIGM SHIFT’ COMING FOR COASTAL BRANDS

The smaller 2015 harvest is causing a “paradigm shift” for brands retailing for $10-plus and built on excess fruit from California coastal appellations in the big crops of 2012–2014, according to Dorfman.

“A lot of premium brands have been built on three premium harvests in coastal appellations, and even these will have challenge finding grapes and wine at a decent price,” Dorfman said. “This harvest will be bellwether event to see where these brands will go, because we are not seeing lower pricing on the bulk market.”

And it was “a tale of two markets” — California coastal regions aimed at higher-priced wine and interior areas positioned for value-priced wines, Dorfman said. Though statewide winegrape tonnage was off by 5.0 percent, crop weight was up 5.0 percent for interior, high-volume districts but down 29 percent for coastal districts, he noted. With a drop of 338,000 coastal tons, that’s the equivalent of 23 million fewer cases of wine that could be made from those grapes, he noted.

“In a sense, supply has moved counter to demand, considering the over-$10 market is what’s growing,” Dorfman said.

CAB LEADS GRAPE PRICES HIGHER

Cabernet sauvignon continues to be king of premium wine, keenly visible in some of the highest prices ever for the variety in Napa and Sonoma counties. The Sonoma County average cab tonnage price increased 3.4 percent last year to $2,642. That was only $40 a ton below the peak price in 2001, Clements said. That it the grape district pricing was only up that much surprised him.

“Because we saw an increase of only 3 percent shows there are not a lot of grapes available,” Clements said.

That’s especially true, considering sought-after cab grapes not in long-term contracts — less than 20 percent are on this “spot market” — are finding buyers about $3,000 a ton, he said.

Napa County cab, the region’s chief variety, pricing jumped $409 a ton, or 7.0 percent, to $6,224 last year, the report said. That’s the grape’s highest price ever, rising steadily from a low of $3,123 in 2000, Clements said. The 2015 county cab price was 15.2 percent above the five-year average.

“That is below the asking price for Napa cab now, with all the disclaimers,” Clements said. “Valley-floor Napa cab is going for $7,000 a ton.”

Growers in Lake and Mendocino counties benefited from vintners’ search for more higher-end cab. The county average price for the variety in those counties went up 7.2 percent in Lake to $2,143 a ton, 21.2 percent above the five-year trend, and in Mendocino up 4.0 percent to $1,935, 15.4 percent above average.

“Even though 2015 was a challenging harvest season and tonnage was down compared to the previous three vintages, Sonoma County grapes continue to increase in value,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. “Many of the grape varieties we’ve become renowned for in Sonoma County have continued to increase over the past five years, proving there is strong demand for our grapes.”

A lingering question is whether consumers will accept higher prices per bottle as costs for grapes and wine from Napa and Sonoma counties mount, Dorfman said. If not, grape sourcing for brands based more on style of winemaking than Napa and Sonoma origin may move to Lake County and Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon or Central Coast and Santa Barbara chardonnay.

Final 2015 California winegrape crush data (1.usa.gov/1PDYB9D), including bulk-wine production, are set to be released in March and July.