Crop insurance helps North Coast growers weather harvest

  • Frank Anderson is a part-time insurance claims adjuster for Rain and Hail Insurance Services, Thursday Dec. 15, 2011 and was an adjuster on a claim filed by Balletto Vineyards and Winery due to crop losses. Anderson, who also owns several acres of wine grapes, had to file a claim with another adjuster due to his losses this past harvest. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

As the dust settled after one of the most challenging harvests in recent memory, North Coast grape growers assessed the damage, and now many are considering beefing up a basic protection: crop insurance.

In Sonoma County, overall grape yields were down an estimated 20 percent below the average of about 200,000 tons, a low that hasn't been reached in more than a decade.

Those who insured their crop received some measure of financial relief, but the payouts varied widely depending on the type of coverage.

"We had a lot of people calling in notices of damage," said Chris Maloney, an insurance broker for Chris Maloney Crop Insurance Services in Petaluma, one of the largest crop insurance underwriters in the state. "We could not transmit the notice of damage fast enough before another call came in."

One of the major problems, especially in white grapes, was a rot that developed in the clusters after fall rains, known as botrytis.

"The botrytis was really exploding ... and for it to go so quick, it caused a lot of damage in a short amount of time," Maloney said.

Yields were low across the board, especially for sauvignon blanc, due largely to the unseasonable rains during bloom that interrupted pollination causing an effect called "shatter," which resulted in fewer grapes on each cluster.

"I'm pretty confident that the claims will be up significantly this year," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "I think anybody who's got sauvignon blanc probably has a claim."

The official tally of the loss will not be available for a few months. But some growers were reporting losses of 30 percent or more, prompting Lisa Correia, assistant agricultural commissioner for Sonoma County, to begin examining whether the county could be declared a federal disaster area and become eligible for assistance.

To qualify, the county's grape crop would have to be 30 percent smaller than normal.

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