The decline in inventories and increasing overall wine sales are translating to aggressive buying from wineries for 2010 wine grapes, especially for San Joaquin Valley wine grapes, according to Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, the state’s largest wine grape marketing cooperative.

“Wineries are very active … much more active in March than the last 10 years,” DiBuduo said. There are reports of winery contracts being offered to plant new vineyards. However, it remains to be seen how many growers, burned by years of market malaise, will respond to offers.

“From Lodi south, demand is better for wine grapes, especially for red wine grapes,” he said. Prices are better than last year.

The premium wine grape area of the North Coast is only attracting “tire kickers” but no price offerings, he said. However, there are more inquiries now from wineries for wine grapes from Mendocino and Lake counties than there were for grapes from the same area at harvest time last year.

DiBuduo did not have details on the Central Coast market, but there are reports of stronger demand there. However, the president of Allied said the Central Valley will recover economically faster than the coastal wine grape producing areas.

“I am bullish about wine grape prices this year after being down for so many years. We should be having a good year,” he said.

A huge 2010 crop could derail DiBuduo’s optimism. “We had a large crop last year, yet so far we are still seeing interest from wineries for grapes this year,” he added.

Growers in some areas are expecting a smaller crop in 2010 because weather conditions last year during fruit bud differentiation for 2010 fruiting buds were not ideal.

However, it is “still too early — we are barely at bud break” this season to make a firm prediction about less fruitful vines this year, said DiBuduo.

DiBuduo bemoaned the fact that continued pressure from imports could take the shine off the 2010 crop. According to the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report, bulk imports are down, but there are  more bottled imports coming into the U.S, often imported by California wineries.

“You have to be aware of the total global market — not just bulk wine but bottled wine as well — to understand this local California market,” he added.

“The signs are for a good year. I just hope there is no rain on our parade. Right now at least there is a little more light coming out of the end of the tunnel,” he added.