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Analysts: Better times ahead for grape growers

Winery sales and profits have slowly started to rebound and North Coast grape growers, who were battered by falling prices and erratic weather last year, should enjoy stronger demand for their fruit if the recovery continues.

"We see measured improvement as we look at 2011," Glenn Proctor, a partner at San Rafael grape brokerage Ciatti Company, told growers Thursday at a conference in Santa Rosa. "It's going to take some time but we see prices coming up, demand coming up."

That would be welcome news for grape growers who endured one of the toughest growing seasons in memory last year. Early mold, unusually cool temperatures, sudden heat spikes and a rainy harvest all made the 2010 harvest a nightmare for many.

Longtime grape grower Jim Murphy described the season in a word: "Horrible."

While bringing in the crop was tough, selling it has become the real challenge, said Murphy, whose family farms 270 acres in the Alexander Valley and owns the former Murphy-Goode winery facility on Highway 128.

"Most wineries aren't buying grapes right now," said Murphy, who ended up turning several hundred tons of grapes into wine when no buyers emerged.

But that could be changing. Wineries are showing some early interest in locking in grape supplies for 2011, particularly red varieties, Proctor said.

"We are seeing buying activity out there, so that is encouraging. They are focused on reds," Proctor said. "People are asking about cab, pinot and zin, even merlot."

Demand for Sonoma County whites like chardonnay, however, continues to be weak because the massive 2009 crop created an oversupply that the market continues to digest, he said.

Overall, however, demand should improve in 2011 for several reasons, Proctor said.


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