Tim Meinken has sold every grape he?s ever grown on his Russian River vineyard for the past 20 years.
It didn?t 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 aren?t buying any more grapes than they absolutely need this year, putting the squeeze on Meinken and fellow high-end grape growers large and small.
?I?ve 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 year?s 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 who?ve 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.
?It?s 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.
?Some are taking it, some are saying ?no way,? said Clements.
Last year, the average price for Sonoma County grapes was $2,235 a ton, an all-time high.
The dramatic plunge in prices has nothing to do with quality. By all accounts, this year?s ideal growing season is helping produce a crop of stellar quality.
But in many cases the offering price won?t cover the cost of harvest, forcing some growers to leave the fruit on the vine.
?It?s a horrible thing to see,? Clements said. ?We?re working through a bad situation.?
Few growers are willing to admit their crop is about to be lost. Some don?t want the publicity, fearing harm to their reputation. Others are still holding out hope a buyer may show up even as the chances of that happening are fading fast.
?I?ve got 14 tons of cab that we can?t give away,? said a Cazadero-area grower who asked not be identified.
Hoping to avoid that worst-case scenario of unpicked fruit, Meinken chose to roll the dice. On Tuesday, he struck a partnership with Scheid Vineyards in Monterey County to turn his grapes into bulk wine, buying himself some time until the market improves.
Unlike traditional custom crush operations that charge upfront fees, Scheid has waived the fees for a share of the profits.