As economy takes toll on wine sales, growers find wineries aren't buying

Grapes from Bill Nachbaur's knotty, old vines in the Russian River Valley have been hot sellers in years past.

Contracts to buy them are usually signed months before harvest with award-winning wineries producing syrahs and zinfandels commanding more than $30 a bottle.

But things are much different this year. The recession has cut consumer spending on wine, especially at the high end, and wineries are responding by making less of it.

That's left growers like Nachbaur in a tight spot. About a quarter of the crop from his 27 acres near Healdsburg is still uncommitted. If he can't find a buyer by September, he might be forced to crush the grapes himself, sell them at a loss on the bulk market or worse -- leave them on the vine.

"We've been advertising and no one's calling," said Nachbaur, a retired attorney who bought Alegria Vineyards 19 years ago with his wife, Betsy. He bottles under his own label, Acorn Winery.

"I guess they're not sure they want to make more wine," he said.

Anxiety is gripping Sonoma County's $400 million-a-year grape industry this season as buyers hesitate to enter the spot market and prices plummet.

Although a majority of the region's 61,000 acres are spoken for in annual contracts, up to 20 percent of the crop sells on the open market in the nine months leading up to harvest.

Brian Clements, a senior partner for Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage, said about 70 percent of that market is unclaimed compared to about 40 percent at this time last year.

Battered by shrinking demand for luxury wine and rumors early on of a big crop, some varieties are now selling for about half of what they did last year -- if they sell at all.

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