North Coast Winegrapes on the Market

In mid-harvest, California vineyards report ample supplies of unsold premium fruit

by Jane Firstenfeld
Testa Vineyards harvest
Harvest time at Mendocino County's Testa Vineyards. Some of the county's grapes are looking for homes.

San Rafael, Calif. -- Hundreds of tons of premium winegrapes are being offered for sale by growers in Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties this fall, and local associations have made it easy for buyers to pinpoint and purchase the grapes they need for their winemaking programs.

An almost ideal growing season combined with hesitant wineries have made more grapes available. "We produced more fruit this year than last," Rich Schaefers, chairman of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission, told Wines & Vines. He recalled the trying 2008 season, when spring frosts reduced yields and a haze of wildfire smoke shrouded the vineyards for much of the summer.

"It's difficult to say if there are more unsold grapes; we did not lose as much to frost. This is certainly a better year than last year," he said. Even with tons of grapes still unsold, "More is always better. Sometimes it's inconvenient, but, within reason, if your vineyards are balanced and you get a good crop," grapes will eventually find a home, he said hopefully.

Schaefers, a grapegrower, estimated that about 80% of Mendocino's winegrapes have been harvested, and, he said, "We expect to see the county's average grape prices go up," mostly because to date, there has been little activity on the spot market to drive average prices down. "Folks with contracts that are tied to the county average could be happy, because prices will probably hold," he said.

At the commission's website, truemendocinowine.com, however, dozens of growers have posted grapes for sale, from Cabernet Sauvignon through Zinfandel, including some rarities like Muscat Blanc, Roussanne, Carignane and Tocai Friulano. More than 100 tons of Pinot Noir are on the market, and even more Chardonnay.

Schaefers said purchasers this year mostly have been small wineries taking "insignificant quantities. Big wineries making vin ordinaire can wait for the bulk market," he surmised.

He said that some growers are already turning to custom-crush facilities, investing in transforming their excess crop into bulk wine. "If you can't sell it as fresh grapes, you have a choice. You can't hang on to it forever -- it's perishable. You can leave it to rot or make it into wine."

This, of course, can be an additional gamble for cash-strapped growers, Schaefers said. He estimated that custom crushing can range from $225 per ton to "the sky's the limit," depending on additional services like oak treatments or barrel fermenting.

Next door in Lake County, the Lake County Winegrape Commission has provided online grape sales listings for its members for "five or six years," according to executive director Shannon Gunier.

Gunier has noticed a definite upturn in grape listings from the county's 8,800 vineyard acres this year. Lake County also has a wide range of varieties available, although the majority of posts are for the region's signature Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.

"We're all feeling the pain," she said. "It's been a really tough year. I feel like we're in suspended animation, at the wrong end of the food chain, starting with restaurants that have stopped buying, wineries that are holding back."

Gunier said that during most years, Lake County grapes sell out. This year is different. "Prices are down. I understand that even some in mighty Napa have lowered their prices." Napa and Sonoma counties are Lake's biggest customers, but last year, the county sold about $4 million in grapes to out-of-state markets including Canada. Gunier said that about 85% of Lake County fruit is sold outside the county.

"Most wineries want to make regional wine," she acknowledged, "but if you can't supply your demand and your customers, you have to buy grapes." Most of these out-of-state buyers, she said, make at least 5,000 cases per year, and, "They want to produce what we grow here. That market is definitely starting to expand."

Gunier reported that some Lake County growers have lost long-term contracts, adding that, due to continued winery consolidation, "No one knows who the decision-makers are any more." She said that Lake County's harvest is somewhat later than in the Mendocino region: "We're right in the middle now; we'll keep going through October," she said.

Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, also reported an uptick in grape listings this year. "I think there are more grapes available; it's definitely up from past years," he said.

Frey predicted that this year's harvest will reach the county average of 200,000 tons -- or perhaps a bit higher. The harvest, he said, is now about 50% complete. "We've been going strong in Chardonnay for a week or so, and just getting into the reds this week." Frey said he expected the Pinot Noir crop, however, to remain about the same as 2008, an off-year for that variety.

"Prices in general have weakened," Frey said. "As we've gone into harvest, I've heard of some low offers on grapes -- people looking for a real bargain." He suggested that these low-ball prices are being offered by producers from outside Sonoma County. "Really, no one has come into the market strong, taking significant tonnage," he said.

Frey predicted, too, that custom-crushing will probably increase this year, as more growers are willing to take the additional financial risk. Even some Zinfandel grapes from 30- to 50-year-old vines are available on the commission website.

As Shannon Gunier noted, even lofty Napa has not proven immune to the vicissitudes of the economy: Hundreds of tons of king Cab are listed for-sale-by-grower at the Napa Valley Winegrape Market on the Napa Valley Grapegrowers' website. In a season when few can afford to be risk-takers, those winemakers who can take the leap of faith may eventually taste the rewards.

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