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The abysmal grape growing season of 2010 is nearly complete, with more than half of Sonoma County's wine grapes now harvested.

Only a few weeks remain in what has been one of the most challenging years on record for vineyard managers who watched helplessly as the economy gutted grape prices, a foggy summer spawned an outbreak of destructive mold, and a sizzling hot fall turned many of the surviving grapes into raisins.

The unusual weather might result in one of the smallest Sonoma County grape harvests in 10 years, according to growers.

Some are predicting this year's crop could be 20 percent smaller than normal, placing the total output at about 160,000 tons. The last time the county's total crop production weighed less than that was in 1999 -- and the county had fewer vineyards in production then.

With grapes now selling at prices nearly 70 percent cheaper than a few years ago, it is also likely that the total value of this year's harvest will be far less than last year's $465 million crop.

"With Mother Nature and the economy, it's been a double whammy," said Harry Black, vineyard manager for Rancho Miguel in the Alexander Valley.

When asked if there was any positive news about this year's harvest, Black laughed.

"Well, it's almost over," he said.

But Black and others are finding solace where they can.

The recent heat waves helped speed the maturation of grapes, which were three to four weeks behind because of the unusually cool, damp summer. Now growers say the grapes are only about a week behind, improving their chances of harvesting their crops before the rainy season arrives.

The small harvest this year might have come at the perfect time for growers because few wineries are looking to buy extra grapes. Growers would have been hard pressed to find anyone to buy surplus grapes.

Also, the smaller harvest means wineries will likely end up with less juice from estate vineyards and contracted grapes than anticipated, and that means grape sales might increase next year, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

"Wineries are not going to have as much crop as they thought," Frey said. "I hope the net effect is that wineries have to go out and buy some grapes next year."

Wineries and other grape buyers have been slow to buy this year's unsold grapes. About 20 percent of growers went into this harvest without contracts for their fruit, and have found it tough to receive sustainable prices.

Hardly anyone is buying chardonnay grapes, and red grapes such as cabernet and merlot are usually only attracting offers of $500 to $700 a ton, Frey said.

"Whatever the price is, it's not a money-making deal," he said.

Todd Azevedo, a grape broker with the Ciatti Company in San Rafael, said most of the buyers now are looking for bargain deals to be used in low-end wines often labeled simply as a California wine.

"Corporate wineries are buying, but they are buying for their low-end programs," Azevedo said.

Budget-minded consumers have turned to cheaper wines, and that has resulted in wineries increasing production of less-expensive wines.

To handle the slowdown, growers have turned to custom crush facilities that can turn unsold grapes into bulk wine. Rather than letting unsold fruit rot, growers can hold onto the wine and try to sell it during the next year or two.

"We actually made profit on the bulk market last year," Black said.

Up until a few years ago, all of Rancho Miguel's grapes were under contract, meaning wineries had agreed to buy them before the season even started. But wineries have cut back significantly on their purchase agreements, and this year only 60 percent of the vineyard's crop was under contract.

So Black decided to utilize the custom crush facility again, which is a trend he expects will spread in the industry as larger wineries scale back inventories.

Rancho Miguel sent its unsold grapes to M. Draxton, a custom crush facility in the Alexander Valley.

"We give people an option so they don't have to drop their unsold fruit on the ground," said Mike Draxton, founder of the custom crush facility that is located in the former Murphy-Goode Winery on Highway 128.

Last year, Draxton said they crushed about 1,200 tons. This year he expects to crush between 3,000 and 3,500 tons.

"Last year this time I was making phone calls," Draxton said. "This year the phone calls are coming to me."

The smaller harvest means the actual amount of grapes crushed into bulk wine might not increase much this year.

Farmers cut out a lot of fruit this summer to battle bunch rot, a mold that took hold during cool, foggy mornings. Then, record heat in late August sunblasted grapes, turning many into raisins and damaging vines. The net effect is vines have fewer grape clusters to harvest, and the remaining fruit is smaller and lighter than normal, according to growers.

"It has affected things across the board," Frey said.

The biggest silver lining of this season might not just be that it's nearly over, but that it might represent the bottom of a difficult downturn for growers.

"It could be the market correction that we needed," Frey said. "But it's been a pretty painful year as result."

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 703-1577 or nathan.halverson@pressdemocrat.com.