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One-two punch for grape harvest
Sonoma County's 2010 harvest, beset by bizarre weather and a stagnant economy, leaves growers facing some tough choices

  • Vineyard worker Jose Torres thins the zinfandel crop at Por Que vineyard, which supplies Porter Creek Vineyards with grapes, on Thursday. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

The 2010 grape harvest that started last week is one for the history books — and for all the wrong reasons.

The economy has decimated grape prices and stalled sales, and Mother Nature continues to deliver one nasty blow after another.

About 20 percent of Sonoma County's grapes are still unsold, with only a few weeks to go. In normal years, nearly everything is usually sold by this point. And when grapes are selling, the prices for some varietals have fallen nearly in half.

Already growers are comparing the harvest to 1974 and 2000, when grape gluts combined with economic downturns to roil the wine-grape market.

But unlike those tough years, a glut is not expected this harvest. The forecast is for a slightly smaller haul of about 190,000 tons — about 5 percent below normal.

This year will instead be remembered for its awful economy and incessant natural calamities.

“I've never experienced anything like this,” said Duff Bevill, a veteran grower and founder of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg. “Everybody likes to compare it to the Depression. It's not, but it's the closest thing to date.”

Growers who managed to find buyers in recent weeks received prices between $1,000 and $1,800 a ton — and even lower, depending on the varietal, according to some farmers.

“Some of the growers can't stay in the business at these prices,” said Brian Clements, a wine broker at Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. “The price decline ... has been huge.”

In 2008, Sonoma County farmers got $2,240 per ton on average, with varietals such as pinot noir fetching an average $3,170 a ton.

Options for growers with unsold grapes are dwindling. They now likely face three choices: Sell their grapes at or below cost; let the fruit rot on the vine and save the cost of picking it; or pay a custom-crush facility to turn their crop into wine and gamble someone will buy it in the future.

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