Wine prices level off

  • Kosta Browne Winery founder and winemaker Michael Browne bottles 2009 Pinot Noir in magnum bottles for auctions and special events at the Sebastopol winery on Wednesday, January 26, 2011.

SACRAMENTO — The economic storm that has battered the North Coast wine industry since 2008 appears to be over.

Three years of slumping wine sales finally hit bottom in 2010, analysts said Wednesday at the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, the largest wine industry conference in the United States.

High-end wine sales grew by double digits last year, said Danny Brager, who tracks wine sales for The Nielsen Company. Wine prices, which fell steadily throughout the first half of 2010, began stabilizing in the summer, marking a break in the intense discounting that gave consumers lower and lower prices.

"The economy is no doubt in a better place," Brager said.

But many growers and vintners still face the difficult task of cleaning up the lingering financial mess left from last year's calamitous harvest and a severe downturn that eviscerated sales for more than a year.

Winegrape production on the North Coast fell 20 percent last year after a disastrous growing season, which was plagued by a cool summer that slowed grape growth, an August heat wave that fried grapes, and October rains that spawned ruinous mold outbreaks, according to crop estimates released Wednesday by the Allied Grape Growers.

In total, California's grape harvest will be down about 14 percent, said Nat DiBuduo, president of the grower association.

"Unless something changes, we are going to be significantly short of grapes going into the future," DiBuduo said.

Last year's small harvest could eventually help buoy grape prices, which have fallen significantly in the last two years. For now, growers are still feeling the pain from having less fruit to sell in 2010. Not every vintner and grower will likely recover, and foreclosures and bankruptcies could increase in 2011 as unpaid bills that stacked up during the downturn drag some under.

"We're bottoming out, but accompanying that is a shakeout," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

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