Coastal California Pinot Noir in Short Supply

The varietal's reputation may suffer as Central Valley grapes fill the void

by Jim Gordon
Boonville, Calif.—Frost, poor fruit set and drought in 2015 hurt the North Coast Pinot Noir harvest in much the same way they harmed the California Central Coast, according to speakers at the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Technical Conference.

While the North Coast Pinot Noir crop—including Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties—dropped by 22%, grape prices rose at the same time, averaging $2,995 per ton for Mendocino grapes and boosted by demand for grapes from Anderson Valley, a cool-climate sub-AVA of Mendocino County with 2,695 acres of Pinot Noir. That price is higher than Napa Valley Pinot Noir and virtually tied with Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, while remaining less than price-leader Sonoma County.

Shortages and higher prices tend to go together, but Pinot Noir growers and producers should also be aware of the long-term consequences, according to Glenn McGourty, the University of California winegrowing and plant science advisor for Mendocino and Lake counties.

In a report prepared by McGourty and presented by Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, McGourty made the case that fast-rising consumer demand for Pinot Noir at a time when high-quality coastal grapes and bulk wine are hard to find means that wineries will have to fill their popular brands with a higher proportion of lower quality Pinot Noir from the Central Valley.

That dilution could have a far-reaching effect on the image and long-term popularity of California Pinot Noir, according to McGourty.

Using data from the CDFA/NASS Grape Acreage and Grape Crush Reports, McGourty showed that Pinot Noir acreage is growing quickly across the state—from under 20,000 acres in 2000 to more than 44,000 acres today. Most new plantings occurred in the Central Coast and Central Valley. Mendocino County Pinot acreage shrank to 6% of the whole during that period.

The statewide harvest of Pinot Noir decreased 25% in 2015—from 245,571 tons down to 184,233 tons. The total Central Valley tonnage was slightly larger than the total coastal counties tonnage, and Central Valley Pinot Noir averaged 2.5 times higher in yield per acre.

“The Central Valley has less than half the acreage of coastal counties but puts more fruit into the marketplace—and cheap too,” McGourty stated. The average price for coastal grapes varied by county from $1,802 to $3,530, compared to $443 to $710 for Central Valley fruit.

Pinot Noir grapes have the highest average price per ton statewide of $1,624. Pinot Noir wine has a 12% rate of growth in off-premise sales during the most recent 52 weeks, according to market research firm IRI; that is twice the growth rate of domestic wine in general.

For the 2016 harvest, good coastal Pinot Noir is in short supply, McGourty reported. Prices are strong for bulk wine from previous vintages. Anderson Valley and Russian River bulk Pinot Noir are selling from $25-$30 per gallon. Central Coast Pinot Noir also has good prices and movement. The interest in California appellation bulk Pinot Noir now is moderate, but there is greater interest in the 2016 vintage.

McGourty said after the meeting that he was highlighting a concern shared by many coastal producers that Central Valley-grown Pinot Noir can damage the image of the varietal as a whole in California.

Similar examples from the recent past include the decline in Syrah and Merlot sales after they were widely planted.

Posted on 06.08.2016 - 14:43:21 PST
The table that was originally posted with this article contained inaccurate data, and has been taken down. The 1.56 tons per acre average that a guest commenter calculated from data in that table was thus also inaccurate and has been removed. Thanks to Tony Correia for pointing out the discrepancy. The Editor
Jim Gordon
Napa, CA USA