Agriculture

Downsized Harvest

Workers pick sauvignon blanc grapes at a vineyard in Oakville, California winemakers are looking at smaller harvests after a tough year that started with unusual frosts and moved on to smokey summer wildfires.  Projected estimates range from 3 million to 3.4 million tons.
Workers pick sauvignon blanc grapes at a vineyard in Oakville, California winemakers are looking at smaller harvests after a tough year that started with unusual frosts and moved on to smokey summer wildfires. Projected estimates range from 3 million to 3.4 million tons. AP

Thanks to frost on the vines in April, the wine grape harvest has been smaller than usual in the heat of the California summer.

But growers and vintners said the quality of the crop looks good, in the San Joaquin Valley and premium regions near the coast.

And they said the shortage is not severe enough to bump up wine prices for consumers.

"Wineries may make adjustments," said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno. "There will always be the supervalue wines."

The federal government last month projected 3.4 million tons of wine grapes would be harvested in the state this year. DiBuduo said he expects it to be 3.0 million to 3.2 million.

Industry people had worried that an especially small harvest would leave wineries struggling to meet customer demand. That would be the flip side of the grape glut early in this decade, when consumers got some nice values but many growers faced low grape prices.

The April frost affected some vineyards more than others. Ceres-area grower Ken Yonan was among the hardest hit, losing about 70 percent of his crop. He said he is counting on insurance and a better 2009 yield to make up the loss.

Yonan, who grows merlot and chardonnay grapes for several wineries, said the grapes that made it through are good stuff.

"When there is less grapes, the quality goes up," he said. "The sugar goes up, the brix goes up, and the color is good."

Brix is a measure of the sugar, which turns to alcohol as the wine ferments.

The valley grape crop is vital to the economy in the Modesto area. Thousands of people are employed in vineyards, winemaking, bottle-making, sales, trucking and other jobs.

Frost hit one of the Stanislaus County vineyards belonging to Silkwood Wines, a premium producer in Modesto, owner John Monnich said.

But the cold snap also might have caused the grapes to have more juice per ton than usual, making up some of the loss, he said.

Monnich is delaying part of his harvest because the grape seeds do not yet have the desired dark brown color. They are still green, which would mean too much unpleasant tannin in the wine.

"As long as there's no rain coming, we'll be OK," Monnich said.

Statewide, the grapes are smaller than usual this year, but "people are very happy to date with the quality and flavor development," said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers in Sacramento.

The valley produces the vast majority of the state's grape volume, but most of it brings far lower prices than coastal growers get. In recent years, valley growers have worked to boost quality, but the price gap has persisted.

DiBuduo said prices paid to valley growers are up 25 percent to 50 percent this year. Thompson seedless grapes that sold at $150 per ton last year are expected to be about $225 or so. Cabernet sauvignon that was $250 is $300 to $350 this year.

On the other hand, growers face increasing costs for fuel, fertilizer, herbicides and metal for trellises, DiBuduo said.

If a serious grape shortage does develop, the industry will have trouble keeping up with the 3 percent to 5 percent annual growth in wine demand, said Rob McMillan, an industry expert with Silicon Valley Bank. Demand for wines in the $12 to $20 range is soaring by 18 percent, he said.

This year, growers also had to deal with water shortages in some places, several heat waves and the smoke from numerous wildfires.

It wasn't clear if the smoke would affect the wine crop, but some wineries are having juice tested as a precaution.

"At this point everybody's watching," said Domingo Rodriguez, vice president and co-owner of Winesecrets, a Sebastopol-based company that filters unwanted substances from wine.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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