Last year, Ron and Ellie Jones couldn't find a single winery willing to buy their Chalk Hill chardonnay crop, which was left to rot on the vine.
But last year's surplus of grapes has become a shortage. For the first time in years, wineries are bidding up the price of grapes sold on the spot market and signing long-term contracts with growers to ensure a steady supply of fruit in the future.
The Jones family received a three-year contract to sell their bounty to La Crema winery in Windsor.
"We're very pleased," said Ron Jones, whose wife was so determined to avoid a repeat of last year's debacle that she wore a sign on her blouse advertising their grapes at the annual Taste of Sonoma gala last month. "I think supply and demand are back a little more in balance, and I think wineries are starting to line up supply again."
The Joneses' turnaround illustrates changes in the grape market that are providing a boost to growers during one of the most difficult harvests in decades.
"Overall, it's been a very strong market, especially for reds, and especially for things like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel," said Glenn Proctor, partner at Ciatti Company, a San Rafael wine and grape broker. "We have seen prices, almost across the board, take a jump from what they had been."
For example, cabernet sauvignon grown in Sonoma County sold for $1,700 to $2,300 per ton on the spot market last month, up from $700 to $1,500 per ton a year ago, according to Ciatti Company.
A number of factors contributed to the price increases. The supply of grapes in Sonoma County is down, after unseasonable rains reduced the crop to an estimated 15 percent below its normal size. And bulk wine, which wineries often use to supplement their product when the crop yield is low, also is in shorter supply.
"There's virtually no grapes left over this year, which is the first time in three or four years," said Duff Bevill, founder of Bevill Vineyard Management. "I'm sure there's a buyer for virtually everything that's grown."
With fewer grapes to sell, growers are not necessarily reaping huge benefits from the higher prices. Instead, they're losing less money than they did in recent years, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.
"I don't think anyone will be getting rich this year," Frey said. "Costs were high due to the weather, so it's not going to be a very profitable year for any grape grower."
The price increases come at a difficult time for wineries. Rising grape prices translate into higher production costs, but wineries can't easily pass those costs on to cash-strapped consumers, who are still looking for value.
"For wineries right now, a price increase for their cost of goods comes at a very challenging time," said Andy Frokjer, vice president at Rabobank.
After the stock market took a dip in July, consumer confidence fell, and that began to weigh on wine sales, Frokjer said.
"The recovery has slowed down dramatically," he said.
In a normal Sonoma County vintage, about 200,000 tons of grapes are harvested. Of those, two-thirds are produced by independent growers and the rest are produced by wineries, Frey said.
Until the economic downturn in 2007-08, the vast majority of the grapes raised by independent growers, 90 to 95 percent, were sold to wineries under multi-year contracts, Frey said. But in recent years, only about 80 percent of those grapes were sold in multi-year contracts.