Larger California North Coast wine grape crop has fewer buying excess tonnage

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At about the half-way point for the North Coast wine grape harvest, the potentially sizable crop is not finding as many eager buyers as in the past few years, but it could be too early to tell if this signals a significant change demand for California’s choicest grapes.

“Crops in general are picking over estimates,” said Brian Clements, partner of Turrentine Brokerage, a Marin County-based dealer and marketer of grapes and bulk wine. “Wineries for the most part are not taking overages.”

Grape-purchase contracts often have maximum-tonnage clauses that can limit what a winery will buy based on estimates during the season.

“We have sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir overage to sell,” Clements said. It’s staying on the market because (winery tank) space is an issue.”

Sales of bottled wine are growing but not as robust as earlier projections suggested, so the market for excess fruit and wine has slowed a bit, he said. The volume of bottle wine sold during the coming holidays will tell the story of whether this is a momentary blip, or a portent of a shift in the market cycle, Clements said.

The size of the North Coast wine grape crop, not including part of western Solano County, was nearly 465,000 tons, down 7.8 percent from 2016 and 5.9 percent from the five-year average, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture tallies. Sonoma and Napa counties had below-average harvests last year of almost 205,000 tons and 141,600 tons, respectively.

Napa County growers started picking cabernet sauvignon, the appellation’s top variety by tonnage, in late September, and the forecasted temperatures over the next few weeks of daytime high temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s has a number projecting the harvest could wrap by the end of this month, according to Heidi Solinger, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Grapegrowers trade group.

Sam Kaplan, vineyard manager and winemaker for Arkenstone Vineyards in the Howell Mountain appellation of Napa County, said the “ideal” growing season this year has resulted in the high-quality fruit that had been anticipated going into harvest.

“The weather has been perfect — overall, consistently warm, allowing for complete fruit development,” Kaplan said. “With these ideal conditions, we’ve been able to space out our picks and steadily bring in fruit.”

He noted that the fruit this year is characterized by “bright” acidity and “complex flavors.”

Sonoma County is about half-done with the harvest, after a sprint at the beginning of this month, according to Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.

“The growing season before the rains has been pretty ideal, without much pressure,” said Kruse.

But as the forecast showed rain coming as September turned to October, North Coast growers jumped into action to bring as much fruit into wineries as possible before the skies opened up Oct. 1.

“Growers also prepared by dropping leaves to open of the fruit zone,” Kruse said.

Teams were back out during the rest of last week to remove more leaves so warmer days and breezes would dry the clusters out, she said. A big concern is rot that can cause grape berry skins to burst.

“Like every year, it wouldn’t be a harvest without a tangle with Mother Nature, but the growers are back at it, and the grapes are doing well,” Kruse said.

Still on the vine in Napa and Sonoma counties as of last week were some pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. Those are early-ripening varieties that also are more susceptible to problems with rot because of their thinner skins.

Now, growers are moving into picking of longer-maturation red varieties, namely merlot, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. Napa County’s wine grape crop is skewed largely toward cabernet sauvignon.

After a number of hotter days earlier in the growing season, cooler weather slowed down the grape development after veraison, the term for when grapes change color and start sprinting toward prime picking potential.

The hurried-up harvest push this year brought back to the fore a problem that has been simmering in North Coast wine country for years: hands to pick the grapes, pull the leaves, sort the grapes, etc.

“Labor is always an issue, but I am not hearing of additional pain points than what we have had for the past three-plus years,” Kruse said. “More growers are exploring and using the H-2A (visa) program, which requires housing. I know of four new dormitory-style houses being built for H-2A workers around the county.”

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