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North Coast grape harvest of 2021 bounces back from previous year plagued by wildfires

The value of the North Coast’s 2021 grape harvest rebounded to $1.4 billion, a 48% increase from the smoke-tainted 2020 harvest but still off from record levels a few years ago, according to federal agriculture data released Thursday.

Growers in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin counties had an almost 17% increase in yield — nearly 400,000 tons — over 2020, according to a preliminary California harvest report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 2021 harvest was still below the 10-year average of 476,684 tons, reflecting a lighter crop for the second straight year.

The smaller yields, however, have brought the local wine grape market more into balance in pricing for growers. Just a few years ago there was an excess of supply after massive harvests. For example, the record crop value occurred in 2018, at more than $2 billion in value for 588,889 tons.

But that dramatically changed in 2020 with the Walbridge and Glass fires, which disrupted picks and produced tainted fruit because of the smoke.

“I think we are returning to balance, if not already there,” said Karissa Kruse, executive director for the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the main local trade group for the industry.

Kruse said in past years she would have heard by early winter from growers who were looking for help to secure contracts with wineries for their grapes for the next harvest.

That’s not the case this year. “We are really hearing that wineries are going back out and asking for long-term contracts again,” Kruse said.

Sonoma County growers in 2021 harvested 202,304 tons at an average price per ton of $2,672, according to the preliminary figures. That resulted in an overall value of $541 million, just shy of the 10-year average of $551 million.

The average price paid for a ton of grapes in the overall region increased from $2,771 to $3,501.

“Prices were up for nearly all North Coast wine grape varieties, and that momentum has carried into the first quarter of 2022,” said Brian Clements, vice president for Turrentine Brokerage in Novato.

The price jump was largely driven by fruit from Napa County, which reached a record high of $6,091 per ton. That was a result of the continued demand for cabernet sauvignon from Napa County, which is the most prized grape variety in the United States.

The report had the cabernet sauvignon variety at $8,706 per average ton, which was a 39% increase from 2020’s very limited crop of $6,261 per ton.

“It’s tighter right now. It’s hard to find Napa cab grapes,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner with Ciatti Co., a Novato grape and wine brokerage. He added that the jump reflected the scarcity in securing such grapes the past two years, but Proctor also noted cabernet sauvignon from Napa County already had a strong average price per ton a few years ago, at $7,941 per ton in 2019.

Another variety that has gained attention is sauvignon blanc, the white varietal noted for tropical fruit flavors. Wineries had a hard time purchasing the variety last year given scarcity along with strong demand. For example, the tonnage in Lake County was down 37% in 2021 from its five-year average, while Mendocino County’s was down 30%. It decreased 5% in Sonoma County over the same five-year period, said Christian Klier, a grape broker at Turrentine.

“Sauvignon blanc has been hot in the market for consumers, and there’s high demand and high activity, and we are seeing some record pricing that I haven’t seen in the North Coast in the 22 years I have been involved in this,” Klier said.

Local growers like Jim Ricci said they hope to build upon the 2021 harvest, which featured higher chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon yields last year. Ricci farms from his Dry Creek Valley vineyard near Healdsburg, which consists of 18 acres. That made up for the lesser yield from his merlot grapes last year. That variety was significantly down as a result of the drought, as well as windy conditions that knocked around the clusters.

Ricci’s better harvest last year made up for the loss of revenue from 2020 because of smoke taint — he estimated he lost about $75,000 on his cabernet sauvignon crop that year alone, even with crop insurance.

“The truth is that there is only so much you can control,” Ricci said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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