Even before California's 2001 wine grape crop is projected, some buyers on the North and Central Coastal regions are inking deals with growers for top-drawer fruit, according to San Anselmo wine broker Bill Turrentine.

Most growers, backed against the keen edge of market competition brought by last year's plenty, sharpened pruning shears for quality rather than quantity this season.

Most grape buyers, Turrentine said in a recent newsletter, also tend to take cues from the previous season. If prices rose at the end of the season before, they start buying early, but if prices declined as harvest approached in the prior year, they hold off commitments as long as possible.

“And last year, in most areas of California, the longer they waited, the lower the price,” Turrentine wrote.

But, he said, buyers are not idle in Napa and Sonoma counties, and March was busy with sales. “We have more high-end Napa and Sonoma fruit available than we have seen on the open market in almost 10 years. But there is still demand for quality fruit.”

In contrast to multiple offers and record-setting prices for high-end Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel, Chardonnay, regardless of its source, is moving slowly.

Sauvignon Blanc also was strong in the two counties, and some buyers were considering contracts for future production of that variety in Sonoma County.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in Mendocino and Lake counties have drawn interest, although other varieties are slow there.

Central Coast waits

A few deals, he said, are in progress with Central Coast growers for Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and even Chardonnay, “but most of the big players are waiting for set to get an idea of crop size.”

In the state's northern interior districts, selected lots of Syrah, Petite Sirah, and old vine Zinfandel are finding homes.

The latest newsletter of the California Association of Winegrape Growers cited a report by the Wine Market Council that consumption of table wine in the U.S. rose by 3.7 percent last year. That's 6 million cases that brought the total to 238 million cases. The increase is only a shade off the record 4 percent gain by wine coolers back in 1986.

The report also said California high premium wines (in the $7-plus per bottle group) picked up an estimated 10 percent in volume and 15 percent in value in the face of European competition. The $7-to-$10 group was tracked with a 22 percent absolute volume growth in food stores.

On the other hand, California “jug” or “everyday” wine selling at $3 to $7 slipped 1 percent as escalating consumer tastes and sales of ample stocks of value-priced imports took hold.

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In this space in the January 20 issue, we wrote about a report on agri-tech in the San Joaquin Valley issued by the Great Valley Center.

It was brought to our attention that in that column we erroneously indicated the organization serves eight SJV counties. Those are only part of the GVC's territory.

Indeed, the Modesto-based organization does its work in 19 California counties, spanning from the Tehachapis to Mt. Shasta.

E-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com