The Sonoma County grape crush fell 10.7 percent last year, a significant blow to the local economy but far less than the 20 percent drop many had predicted.
Still, the combination of falling grape prices and a smaller harvest in 2010 cost Sonoma County growers $88.4 million last year, according to a preliminary government report released Thursday.
"That has a ripple effect through our economy," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "It will be felt by local suppliers, lenders and others servicing the grape industry."
The value of the North Coast grape crop fell to $902.7 million last year, down from $1.05 billion in 2009. Sonoma County growers suffered the biggest hit, receiving $370.5 million for their fruit last year, down from $458.9 million in 2009.
Yet many had expected a more dire report.
"Everyone thought the crop was going to be even smaller this year," said Brian Clements, a partner at Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato grape brokerage firm. "This report surprised a lot of us."
A cooler than normal summer last year stunted growth through much of the season in Sonoma County, and then a sudden heat wave in August fried the under-developed grapes.
"It was like the grapes had been put in an oven," said Brandon Lapides, winemaker at Armida Winery in Dry Creek. "I'd never seen anything like it."
Armida Winery crushed 70 percent fewer grapes last year after the heat wave destroyed most of its crop, Lapides said.
Overall, the county's zinfandel harvest dropped 31 percent — making it the hardest hit of the county's major varietals and costing growers $10.9 million.
But while some areas and varietals such as zinfandel in Dry Creek were decimated, other areas and varietals were unscathed from the calamitous weather.
"Last year you might have done just fine as a grape grower," said Steve Hill, general manager of Durell Vineyard in Sonoma. "Or you might have had a disaster."
In total, wine producers crushed 189,897 tons of Sonoma County grapes in 2010, down from 212,674 tons the previous year.
But 2009 was a larger than normal harvest. The average harvest is about 200,000 tons, and so 2010 was only about 5 percent below normal, Frey said.
The bigger concern for North Coast growers is that grape prices continued to decline last year as wineries cut back on production, and instead focused on reducing stockpiles of wine in the face of reduced consumer demand.
The lower demand for high-end wine, a result of the recession, sent grape prices tumbling.
Sonoma County grape growers received 9.6 percent less for a ton of grapes on average in 2010, according to the report published by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Growers received $1,951 per ton on average last year, compared to $2,157 in 2009, according to data that looks at grapes sold to non-affiliated wineries.
"It's the lowest price of the decade," Clements said. "It's tough on growers."
Statewide, the industry crushed 3.58 million tons of wine grapes, making it the third-largest crush in state history and down only 3 percent from last year.
Grape growers in the southern Central Valley accounted for the unexpectedly large harvest, making up for the declines in coastal regions hit by the cooler summer and August heat wave.