Grape production dropped 7 percent on the North Coast in 2014, though its vineyards still delivered a record $1.45 billion crop as rising prices and strong demand for top-quality cabernet sauvignon offset smaller yields, according to a new report issued Tuesday.
The smaller crop had been widely expected by growers and winemakers after back-to-back record-breaking harvests in 2012 and 2013. Even so, growers in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties still picked 528,878 tons of grapes last fall — making it the third-largest harvest in more than a quarter-century, according to preliminary figures issued Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“In general, I think things are pretty healthy,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at the Ciatti Co., a San Rafael wine and grape broker. “We got a third year in a row of a large crop with good quality.”
Grape prices set new highs across the region, except in Mendocino County, continuing a run that has driven up the average price of North Coast grapes by 24 percent in just four years. Napa Valley grapes again commanded the highest prices in the state, jumping 10 percent last year to an average of $4,065 a ton. Its famed cabernet sauvignon grapes sold for an average of $5,815 per ton, according to a breakdown by Ciatti, making it the most expensive varietal in the United States, as it has been for years.
The price of Sonoma County grapes rose 3.5 percent, to an average of $2,314 per ton, while Lake and Mendocino counties trailed, at $1,516 and $1,492 a ton respectively.
Overall, the value of the North Coast crop rose 1.6 percent to a record $1.45 billion. While the smaller harvest reduced payments to growers in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, rising prices allowed Napa County growers to collect a record $706.4 million, up 10 percent from 2013. Sonoma County’s crop was valued at $589.7 million in 2014, down 3 percent from 2013. Mendocino’s crop fell to $92 million, down 18 percent, and Lake County’s crop dropped to $58.5 million, down 5 percent.
While grape prices rose for the fourth straight year, Proctor cautioned that wine buyers may not see similar price hikes at wine shops and restaurants. He cited the ample supply of wine left over from three consecutive bumper crops in California, except on the premium end and in certain popular wine regions, where buyers are willing to spend more money.
The glut is extremely big at the lower end of the market, which primarily uses grapes from the Central Valley. For example, prices dropped 13 percent in the state’s largest grape-growing region, Fresno County, and 23 percent in Bakersfield, areas where some farmers are pulling out their vines.
“I don’t think prices are going to escalate because we do have inventory,” Proctor said.
In Sonoma County, cabernet sauvignon was the one major varietal that saw an increase in production in 2014, rising 6 percent to 46,852 tons, making it almost as big as the county’s coveted pinot noir crop. Chardonnay is still the county’s largest varietal, at 86,914 tons last year.
But prices are another matter. Pinot noir is still the most valuable grape in Sonoma County, commanding an average of $3,524 a ton, according to Ciatti, driven by popularity of the varietal in areas such as the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast.