What a difference a year makes: Brian Clements, vice president and senior partner with Turrentine Brokerage, Novato, Calif., says North Coast grape growers are expecting to make some profit this season, after three years of losing money or breaking even at best.
“The last three years have been very, very painful,” Clements says. “Now, wineries need fruit because they’re selling case goods, supplies of bulk wine are limited and there’s a light crop on the vine. Grape buyers and sellers are communicating and transactions are being made. Everyone in the North Coast is in a much better mood this season.”
A year ago, he says, the valley floor price for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon was about $2,200 per ton, but has since risen to around $4,000 a ton. The price of Sonoma County Pinot Noir now stands at $2,200 a ton, $600 a ton higher than last year’s level at this time.
Meanwhile, Sonoma Chardonnay prices have climbed around from $700 a ton year-ago levels to at least $1,700 a ton. Even the value of bulk wine has increased significantly, up about 50 percent in the past 8 months or so.
One reason for the turnaround in North Coast grape prices is the cool, wet and windy conditions during bloom, which disrupted pollination in many vineyards, leading to shot berries. The weather also contributed to a lot of shatter, particularly in Cabernet and Pinot Noir and, to a lesser extent, in Chardonnay. The results are being seen in the first vineyards to be picked this season.
“So far, sparkling producers who’ve been harvesting grapes at about 19 degrees Brix are reporting Pinot Noir yields down at least 20 percent below normal,” he says. “But, these are very early numbers and may not hold through harvest. Chardonnay production is reported to be about 10 percent lower than average.”
Dwindling supplies of bulk wine have also brought strength to grape prices. The volume of bulk wine for most major North Coast varieties is down, particularly in Napa and Sonoma counties, Clements says.
Wineries have finally worked off inventories of case goods, which had built up as recession-battered consumers traded down from premium priced wines to those selling for under $10 a bottle. That, too, has helped boost North Coast prices.
“The luxury end of the wine business has experienced some uptick in sales,” he says. “Now, case good inventories for most wineries are in balance. For some, inventories may even be a little short.”
All this adds up to good and very welcome news for growers.
“I wouldn’t bet the house that we’re out of the woods,” Clements says. “But, I don’t think people will go back in their shells and stop buying luxury wine — everything is lining up for grape prices to be strong for the foreseeable future.”
As a result, he expects wineries to take steps to protect their margins.
“If the current trend in higher North Coast prices holds, we may even start seeing wineries offering multi-year planting contracts in the next couple of years,” he says. “That would be the first time in this area since at least 1995.”
This year, the weather has set back the start of the Napa and Sonoma harvest by at least two to three weeks, Clements notes. Although some growers starting picking a few sparkling grapes the week of Aug. 21, they didn’t really get into full swing until the first week of September. Harvest of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wines was expected to get under way the second week of September, and harvesting of these varieties for still wine was expected to begin a few weeks after that.
Consumers also stand to benefit from a growing season that has experienced little, if any, summer in the North Coast.
“Because of the moderate temperatures throughout the growing season, wine quality should be very good,” Clements says. “However, growers are a little nervous that the late start may push harvest into the winter rains, as has happened here the last two years.”