A bounty of plump grapes is making its way from the vineyards into tanks and barrels, as the 2012 grape harvest hits the halfway point in Sonoma County.
Weather has been ideal so far, and yields for many varietals have been 15 to 20 percent larger than expected, grape growers said. Pinot noir, a local specialty, is among the most abundant.
The excess grapes arrive after two years of shortages, and at a time when inventories are low and demand is high for California wine.
"Everybody lost their tail last year, and to a point the year before, and this year everyone has a chance to recoup some of that," said Ned Hill, owner of La Prenda Vineyards Management based in Sonoma. "Everybody wins in a good crop year."
The main problem facing grape growers and wineries now is figuring out where to put all the fruit, as nearly everything ripens at once.
"The heat last week really put things in gear," said John Clendenen, owner of Clendenen Vineyard Management in Healdsburg. "The winemakers are bearing the brunt of all this. They're slammed. Any winery big or small, they're all struggling, because so many things are getting ripe at the same time."
In early September, cool temperatures slowed the development of sugars in the grapes, delaying the ripening of pinot noir and chardonnay in the Russian River Valley, said John Balletto, president of Balletto Vineyards and Winery. But then, temperatures heated up, quickening the pace.
"I have not seen a crop of this size ever," Balletto said. "Everything's kind of plugged up, so if you don't have that extra outlet it's kind of tough."
Balletto and other winemakers have had trouble finding available barrels, as incoming crops have exceeded estimates made just a few months ago.
"There's not a (used) white barrel available in California that I know of," Balletto said. "We were just looking to buy 100 white barrels, and we had no luck."
Typically, grape growers estimate crop sizes early in the season, based in part on the number of clusters growing on the vine. But the globes have grown fuller and rounder than expected.
"It's like last year we were picking lemons, and this year we're picking grapefruits," Hill said.
The glut of grapes is enabling wineries to replenish inventories at lower prices, a welcome change for many that have dealt with pricing pressure in the past year. Most of the harvested grapes are committed to wineries through contracts that were set far in advance. Once ripened and picked, the extra grapes have to go somewhere fast, and with so many coming on the market, they're being sold at discounted prices.
"It varies dramatically," said Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturist at Silverado Premium Properties. "The larger the winery, the deeper the discount. They can be as high as 35 to 40 percent off the contracted price. There are isolated cases where yields are so large, and overages so significant, they move in and buy grapes literally at Lodi prices."
That's led some growers to custom-crush their own extra grapes instead, to sell the wine on the bulk market where they might make more money.
"We haven't chosen to custom-crush any extra stuff yet, but some people have discussed it," Hill said. "We're just getting to the point where it's tough to sell."