North Coast wine grape producers also suffered from the diminished demand for premium wines. Prices were weak on the 2009 spot market, and the outlook for 2010 thus far is not much better.

“There’s a lot of concern in Sonoma County because several wineries, including some that are major grape buyers, aren’t renewing contracts that expire this year,” says Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma Wine Grape Commission.

He has been encouraging Sonoma growers to list available 2010 grapes on the commission’s Grape Marketplace Web site. The Internet, he says, can offer growers a larger outlet to sell grapes. “They can use it to identify potential buyers throughout California and the country. You have to be out there talking to wineries, marketing yourself and your vineyard, and doing due diligence to show that you can deliver the kind of product that a particular winery wants.”

Faced with market uncertainties, growers are looking at reducing input costs. Mowing a cover crop instead of disking it in, for instance, can reduce equipment and fuel costs.

Reducing labor needs offers probably the most opportunity to have an impact on expenses, Frey notes. Mechanically pre-pruning is one way to do that; another is mechanical leaf removal instead of hand leafing.

Frey discovered another option in early February when he visited a grower intent on producing high-value Merlot grapes.

“He is pruning vines to what he thinks will yield 2-1/2 tons per acre by reducing the number of spur positions per vine and pruning to one bud per spur. Pruning back to just one bud instead of the more typical two will reduce the number of canes and clusters. Then, maybe he won’t have the expense of shoot removal or dropping fruit later in the season to meet a buyer’s needs for a higher-quality grape.”

While price prospects may not be promising now, Frey says, the weather has been favorable. “As of early February, we’re approaching normal rainfall for the year. Reservoirs are filled and streams are flowing. If the soil profile is full after bud break, growers may not have to start irrigating until July or even August. That would also save them money.”