s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

Harvest ends badly for some growers


Ron DeNatale?s Healdsburg vines are supposed to be picked clean this time of year, the plump grapes long since crushed and juice safely fermenting in winery tanks.

Instead, his petite sirah grapes are a ghastly sight, shriveled and rotting on the vine like untold tons of other grapes across the North Coast this year.

?Luckily, we got most of the stuff in before it rained,? DeNatale said.

The soft economy, sluggish high-end wine sales and unusual mid-harvest rains have conspired to bring the 2009 grape harvest to an unceremonious end for many grape growers.

As the harvest draws to a close this week, many growers are heaving a sigh of relief. Most of the crop was harvested before the rains interrupted what had been a nearly ideal growing season. And most growers had contracts to sell their fruit at last year?s record prices.

But many growers without grape contracts were unable to find buyers for their fruit. Some were offered such paltry prices that they were either forced to crush the grapes themselves or leave them to rot on the vine, a sorrowful sight for one of the nation?s most prized crops.

?Between the economy and not have any contract and the rain hitting just as the fruit was ripening, it pretty much did us in,? said Lyle Hatten, owner of Silverwolf Vineyards in Kenwood.

Virtually all of Hatten?s four acres of merlot, 16 to 18 tons worth, succumbed to mold after no buyers stepped forward. The heavy rain in mid-October, followed by several days of humid, warm weather gave the botrytis mold a foothold in Hatten?s vineyard. By last week, the sugar levels in the grapes, diluted by the rain, inched back up, but the mold was growing faster and destroyed any chance of salvaging some of the crop.

?By the time we picked on Friday, there was a lot of mold,? Hatten said. ?It was everywhere.?

Estimates of how much of the North Coast?s grape crop will go unharvested this year are hard to come by.

The increase in activity at custom crush facilities is a clear sign that more growers lacked buyers for their fruit and are turning it into wine themselves, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

?It?s less clear how much got left out there,? Frey said.

Shannon Gunier, executive director of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, estimates about 20 percent of that county?s crop may be left on the vine because sellers never showed up. It was a wake-up call for many Lake County growers and a sign to some that lean times lie ahead.

?It?s not business as usual,? Gunier said. ?Some people are thinking it will bounce back, but we don?t think it will.?

Brian Clements, a grape broker with the Turrentine Brokerage in Novato, said the total amount of grapes left on the vine is tiny compared to the North Coast?s overall crop. Last year, growers in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties harvested 356,000 tons of grapes valued at $860 million.

?I would say there?s still a couple thousand tons out there ? a very, very, very small percentage,? Clements said.

The vast majority of the uncontracted fruit wasn?t left on the vine, but rather was sold to wineries at low prices or turned into wine by the growers, often through innovative partnerships with wineries and custom crush facilities, he said.

Some large wineries stepped in at the last moment and purchased grapes, but at abysmal prices and lower levels than growers had been praying for.

?The wineries were coming in an offering the picking costs plus a little,? Clements said.

Instead of thousands of dollars per acre, growers were offered a few hundred, and many desperate growers took it, Clements said.

The low prices, lack of buying by wineries, and long, painful process of helping growers come to grips with the new reality of the market made 2009 a brutal year, Clements said.

?I?ve been in this business, like, 21 years, and this is darn near the toughest I?ve seen,? Clements said.

Stanley Feingold has been growing grapes on Sonoma Mountain for nearly two decades and he?s never seen anything like this, either.

?It?s the first time in 18 years I haven?t sold my grapes,? said Feingold, 77.

When he failed to find a home for his 15 tons of syrah and merlot, Feingold just decided to give them to Glen Ellen winemaker Tony Coturri.

?My options came down to throwing them on the ground or giving them to Tony, so I gave them to Tony,? Feingold said.

He trusts Coturri will make them into great wine, and they?ll strike a deal down the road over how to split the profits, Feingold said.

But in the meantime, Feingold is out about $60,000, a payday he and other growers worked toward all year only to see it vanish before their eyes. A former attorney and civil engineer, Feingold said he?s lucky he can afford to carry those costs, but many may not make it, he said.

?It?s a supply and demand issue, and it?ll work itself out, but some people won?t survive the work-out,? he said.

The suffering of a few growers should not overshadow the numerous positives of the 2009 harvest, several growers and winemakers said.

While things looked grim mid-harvest, with plenty of fruit still unsold, Sonoma Valley grower Ned Hill said he ultimately was able to sell all his grapes to existing winery clients, albeit by slashing prices.

?The potential was there for very big losses,? Hill said. ?I?m happy to say we did work through it.?

Chardonnay grapes that Hill sold for $2,200 a ton last year, in one case, only sold after he dropped the price to $1,800 to an established customer, a 20 percent cut.

On the quality front, however, all agree the season was stellar. The cooler weather allowed the grapes to mature more slowly, letting the complex flavors develop before sugar levels got too high, Frey said.

Frey predicts the Sonoma County crop will return to an average yield of 200,000 tons following last year?s unusually light 168,000-ton crop.

While it?s shaping up to be a big crop, it?s also going to be a beautiful one for winemakers, said Cory Beck, winemaker at Francis Ford Coppola winery in Geyserville.

Early tests on the Sonoma County fruit show it to have strong color and tannin levels, up about 20 percent over last year, Beck said.

?We?re ecstatic about the quality,? Beck said. ?It?s a phenomenal vintage.?