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Grape production dropped 7 percent on the North Coast in 2014, though its vineyards still delivered a record $1.45 billion crop as rising prices and strong demand for top-quality cabernet sauvignon offset smaller yields, according to a new report issued Tuesday.

The smaller crop had been widely expected by growers and winemakers after back-to-back record-breaking harvests in 2012 and 2013. Even so, growers in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties still picked 528,878 tons of grapes last fall — making it the third-largest harvest in more than a quarter-century, according to preliminary figures issued Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“In general, I think things are pretty healthy,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at the Ciatti Co., a San Rafael wine and grape broker. “We got a third year in a row of a large crop with good quality.”

Grape prices set new highs across the region, except in Mendocino County, continuing a run that has driven up the average price of North Coast grapes by 24 percent in just four years. Napa Valley grapes again commanded the highest prices in the state, jumping 10 percent last year to an average of $4,065 a ton. Its famed cabernet sauvignon grapes sold for an average of $5,815 per ton, according to a breakdown by Ciatti, making it the most expensive varietal in the United States, as it has been for years.

The price of Sonoma County grapes rose 3.5 percent, to an average of $2,314 per ton, while Lake and Mendocino counties trailed, at $1,516 and $1,492 a ton respectively.

Overall, the value of the North Coast crop rose 1.6  percent to a record $1.45  billion. While the smaller harvest reduced payments to growers in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, rising prices allowed Napa County growers to collect a record $706.4  million, up 10  percent from 2013. Sonoma County’s crop was valued at $589.7  million in 2014, down 3  percent from 2013. Mendocino’s crop fell to $92  million, down 18  percent, and Lake County’s crop dropped to $58.5  million, down 5  percent.

While grape prices rose for the fourth straight year, Proctor cautioned that wine buyers may not see similar price hikes at wine shops and restaurants. He cited the ample supply of wine left over from three consecutive bumper crops in California, except on the premium end and in certain popular wine regions, where buyers are willing to spend more money.

The glut is extremely big at the lower end of the market, which primarily uses grapes from the Central Valley. For example, prices dropped 13 percent in the state’s largest grape-growing region, Fresno County, and 23 percent in Bakersfield, areas where some farmers are pulling out their vines.

“I don’t think prices are going to escalate because we do have inventory,” Proctor said.

In Sonoma County, cabernet sauvignon was the one major varietal that saw an increase in production in 2014, rising 6 percent to 46,852 tons, making it almost as big as the county’s coveted pinot noir crop. Chardonnay is still the county’s largest varietal, at 86,914 tons last year.

But prices are another matter. Pinot noir is still the most valuable grape in Sonoma County, commanding an average of $3,524 a ton, according to Ciatti, driven by popularity of the varietal in areas such as the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast.

Cabernet sauvignon was the second-most expensive grape in the county last year at $2,556 per ton, passing zinfandel at $2,552 per ton.

Consumers are increasingly discovering the high quality of the county’s cabernet sauvignon produced by vintners such as Jordan, Silver Oak and some of the high-end Jackson Family Wines brands, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group representing more than 1,800 grape growers.

“They (customers) are looking beyond Napa’s border for a great cabernet,” Kruse said.

The Alexander Valley is making a name for itself through its cabernets. More than 6,200 acres in the valley are planted with the varietal, a little less than half of the total acreage. The Alexander Valley Winegrowers has conducted outreach to help educate restaurateurs and the media about the high quality of its cabernet sauvignon and its value, where good wines can retail from $35 to $85 a bottle, much cheaper than comparable wines from Napa, said Jen Berman, president of the group.

“It’s really exciting to see folks open their eyes to a value they are really not aware of,” said Berman, who is general manager of Stryker Sonoma Winery.

For Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa, the 2104 harvest “for the most part” was a healthy crop, said owner Carol Shelton. Her winery produces mostly zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley.

Shelton bought a 22-acre chardonnay vineyard that she was able to blend with contracted grapes from Mendocino County. Chardonnay prices statewide decreased 6 percent over the last year, but the Sonoma County crop was able to buck that trend because of its high quality, enjoying an increase of 3 percent to $1,970 per ton, with high prices coming from the Russian River Valley.

“It’s still the queen of whites,” Shelton said.

Even with the combination of rising prices and ample yields over the past three years, the industry knows that this year’s crop could end the streak because of factors such as bad weather, increased water demand or other circumstances. Bud break can already be seen in some vineyards, a month earlier than normal, as a result of unseasonably warm temperatures. The process initiates the growing cycle that will culminate in harvest next fall, but the early start also extends the amount of time the vines are exposed to the threat from late winter and early spring frosts.

“If we get a frost, then things are going to zap,” Shelton said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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