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Tough sell for grape growers

  • Unable to sell 25 tons of premium chardonnay grapes, Russian River grape grower Tim Meinken has partnered with a Monterey County winery to turn the grapes into wine he'll try to sell next year on the bulk market. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

Tim Meinken has sold every grape hes ever grown on his Russian River vineyard for the past 20 years.

It didnt matter if it was chardonnay, pinot noir or syrah, all the grapes he and his wife, Anne Giere, have grown on their 32 acres of rolling hills west of Windsor have enjoyed high demand.

Until this year.

Slammed by the recession and credit crunch, North Coast wineries arent buying any more grapes than they absolutely need this year, putting the squeeze on Meinken and fellow high-end grape growers large and small.

Ive been trying to sell these grapes for months, Meinken said, overlooking his vineyard where 25 tons of golden chardonnay still hangs unsold.

With harvest in full swing and his grapes ripening fast, Meinken this week faced a crucial decision sell his grapes for a fraction of last years value, leave them to rot on the vine, or make them into wine.

His decision is one confronting more and more growers as the harvest continues to barrel forward toward its furious conclusion.

In Sonoma County, a little more than half the estimated 200,000-ton crop has been picked, with only about three weeks left before the rest rolls in, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

Most of those grapes, perhaps 80 percent, have been pre-sold under contracts to wineries. The remaining 20 percent of the crop typically sells on the open market in the months before harvest.

Those growers whove been hoping big wineries would swoop in and buy up the extra grapes have been left waiting at the altar. Either no wineries have come courting or the ones that have are offering almost insultingly low prices.

Its getting incrementally worse every week, said Brian Clements, a partner with Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage.

The average spot market price for Sonoma County chardonnay has dropped to between $250 and $500, while cabernet sauvignon is hovering between $500 and $600 a ton, Clements said.

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