The 2010 wine grape season was one of contrasts for California’s wine grape growers.
Yields in coastal and Lodi area vineyards were lighter than in 2009 — in some cases significantly lighter, says Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for Allied Grape Growers. The San Joaquin Valley harvest was about average.
“Overall, the state’s 2010 grape crush was off about 15 percent from the previous year,” he says.
Probably the main reason is the cyclical nature of grape production — large crops like those in 2009 tend to be followed by smaller ones. In the Lodi area, for example, yields of key varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel, were off because of the high yields the vines produced last year.
However, in a season of unusually cool weather, North Coast growers also had to contend with some untimely high temperatures. In fact, one late summer heat wave caught many growers with exposed fruit on their vines. They pulled leaves when the weather was cooler, opening the canopy to more sunlight in an attempt to enhance maturity of the slow-to-develop grapes, while preventing mildew from forming due to the cool temperatures.
“At that point, the grapes hadn’t become acclimated to the increased exposure to the sun and were literally cooked on the vine by the heat,” Bitter says. “Depending on row orientation, losses ranged from about 5 percent to 10 percent of the clusters in some vineyards to a total loss in others.”
In late November, he also saw grapes still hanging on vines in the Central Coast area. “I assume that those grapes, as well as others in North Coast vineyards, failed to reach the desired Brix because of the cool season.”
The decreased production statewide, however, helped stabilize grape prices in the San Joaquin Valley during harvest.
“I didn’t see any over-contracted tonnage being sold at significantly lower prices on the spot market in the San Joaquin Valley,” Bitter says. “Most growers didn’t exceed their contract tonnage, which happened a lot in 2009.”
The weak economy has strengthened demand for wines made from the less expensive grapes in the San Joaquin Valley and Lodi regions, he says. However, grapes from the coastal areas are selling on the spot market at a significant discount to historical prices, which isn’t a sustainable position for those growers.
“For the most part, buyers are interested in grapes from all areas of the state, but at prices that can provide them with a margin at about $10 per bottle and below,” Bitter says.
For growers in the Central and North Coast areas, that situation is not sustainable in the long run, he says.
Wine grape growers in California’s interior have reason to be optimistic about the coming year, he says. Demand for their grapes remains strong and there is little new supply of grapes coming online. The result is a fairly well-balanced market.
“Stable is the best way to describe it,” Bitter says. “This past year didn’t produce any windfalls of cash for San Joaquin Valley and Lodi area growers — but it will probably allow most of them to stay in business, at least for another year.”
That’s in contrast to pessimism among coastal growers about an upturn in demand for their grapes in 2011.
Beyond next year, however, both growers and wineries are hopeful that an improving economy will mean more prosperous times for the Central and North Coast areas, Bitter says.