Except for some growers who suffered from unusually heavy rains in mid-October, 2009 has been a good year for California’s wine grape producers for both yields and quality.

In most cases, this past season was marked by a relatively mild summer and nice ripening conditions during August and September that allowed many growers to pick their grapes early and head of the wet October weather, reports Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for Allied Grape Growers. Based in Fresno, the state’s only grape marketing cooperative serves about 600 growers throughout California.

“Most vineyards experienced a growing season that allowed them to achieve the proper Brix level and ripening required for a good quality harvest,” Bitter says. “Overall, the ‘09 crush of California wine grapes could be up a good 10 percent to 20 percent over last year when it was 5 percent to 10 percent below average.”

While October storms aren’t unusual, the amount of rain they dumped on the state’s vineyards this fall was. For example, the Fresno area received well over an inch, while the North Coast was drenched by 4 to 5 inches or more, he notes. “The rain events were significantly bigger than what growers have typically seen in October over the years,” Bitter says. “Although a clear majority of the wine grapes were harvested before then, some growers, particularly in the North Coast, didn’t even pick grapes after that. Others harvested selectively, depending on what the grapes were worth.”

Growers without contracts for their grapes this year felt the downward pressure on spot market prices exerted by the recession and the reluctance of consumers to purchase higher priced wines. Bitter reports that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that sold for $3,000 to $5,000 a ton a last fall, was selling for just $2,000 or less a ton this year. Meanwhile, harvest prices of grapes used to produce value-priced wines remained stable from last year, he adds.

Bitter expects the market for lower-priced wine grapes to remains stable for next year’s crop. However, he advises producers of grapes used for the higher-end wines to prepare for more volatile prices in 2010.

“You don’t want to go through the next 10 months with a blind eye to the market and not knowing what you’ll be doing with your grapes at next year’s harvest,” he says. “If you can’t contract next year’s production, you’ll have to decide among several other options: Cut costs by minimizing your investment in a crop that you may not be able to sell; custom crush the grapes you can’t sell in order to extend your marketing period and improve prospects for selling your 2010 production later; or try to grow the best quality grapes possible in hopes of getting the attention of what few buyers may be out there next year.”