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,” Brian Clements, vice president and senior partner with Turrentine Brokerage, Novato, Calif., told GrapeLine, an e-newsletter distributed by Western Farm Press and sponsored online by Chemtura AgroSolutions. “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 eight months or so.

You can read more about what Clements had to say about the North Coast 2011 grape crops by visiting back issues of GrapeLine at http://subscribe.westernfarmpress.com/subscribe.cfm?tc=NNWEB where you can also subscribe to future, exclusive in depth issues.

Central Coast harvest begins with average to light yields

Dana Merrill’s Central Coast wine grape harvest began about two weeks later than usual. His crews began with a few blocks of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County, where initial yields were about normal, and some Sauvignon Blanc and a little Pinot Gris in the Paso Robles area of San Luis Obispo County. Production there appears to be lighter than normal. His company, Mesa Vineyard Management, Templeton, Calif., owns and manages 6,000 acres of vineyards, extending from south of the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, north through San Luis Obispo County to King City in Monterey County.

Except for vineyards in the easternmost areas of Santa Barbara County, those in the rest of the county escaped the mid-20 degree frost that hit much of the Paso Robles area and southern Monterey County on the Central Coast over a two-day period in early April.

Merrill’s vineyards there suffered no frost damage. “Our first Santa Barbara yields looked close to average,” he says. “It’s not a big year, but it’s not a disastrously light one, either.

”We’ve had a nice progression of warm days and cool nights, which allows the grapes to mature evenly,” he says. “We haven’t had any damp on-shore air flow in the mornings — that can cause grapes to linger on the vine longer and then you risk more trouble with botrytis and rot. Grape quality is great: we expect a good vintage.”

April freeze, labor shortage

It’s a different story a little farther north, around the Paso Robles area, where the April freeze struck vineyards particularly hard.

“We haven’t yet picked our frozen blocks, which are at least three weeks late this year,” Merrill says. “But, production in the first Sauvignon blanc and Pinot Gris blocks we’ve harvested is off about 20 percent from earlier estimates. You can’t tell the whole story by the first grapes to ripen — they’re usually the lightest yields. Production could change with the later grapes.”

Raisin growers race clock as labor, crop quality concerns loom

Labor shortages are plaguing California raisin growers as they scramble to get grapes off the vines and onto trays in time to meet crop insurance deadlines.

Normally, they have about 4.5 weeks to get canes cut for mechanical harvesting or grapes hand-picked and laid on trays to dry. But, this year’s cool weather has slowed grape ripening, compressing the harvest period to as few as two weeks for some growers. And sugar levels are slow to increase, resulting in reduced tonnage. Cloudy weather and rain showers over the weekend of Sept. 10-11 didn’t help matters.

“There’s a lot of apprehension out there,” says Steve Spate, grower representative for the Fresno-based Raisin Bargaining Association.

Typically, early vineyards are ready for harvest Aug. 17-20, but this season, harvesting didn’t really begin until about 10 days later. He expects to see some spot shortages of labor during this condensed picking season.

To read more about what Spate and Merrill had to say about this year’s California grape crop go to GrapeLine at http://subscribe.westernfarmpress.com/subscribe.cfm?tc=NNWEB where you can also subscribe to future, exclusive in depth issues. Mailed twice monthly through the growing season, the e-newsletter is sponsored by Chemtura AgroSolutions.