North Coast wine grape crop shrinks in value by 15% in 2019 as a result of a lower yield

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The value of the North Coast grape crop slid to $1.7 billion last year, down 15% from 2018 as wine sales leveled off across the United States and wineries reacted by crushing less fruit, according to the annual California grape harvest report released Monday.

Farmworkers picked 490,922 tons of grapes — a 17% decrease from 2018 — from vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties during the 2019 harvest, which kicked off in mid-August and lasted until the end of October.

Grape prices, however, ticked up slightly last year. The average price of grapes harvested in the four-county region increased 2% from the previous year to a record $3,499 per ton in 2019, according to the preliminary state harvest report compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Final figures will come out next month.

The decline in the size and value of last year’s regional grape crop had been expected, since growers were forced to leave tons of grapes on the vines without wineries to buy the fruit and retail wine sales flattened. Grapes to make Sonoma County chardonnay were among those left in the vineyards, as the statewide total of 3.89 million tons crushed was smaller than expected. The report does not track the number of tons of grapes left on vines.

Yet even with the smaller 2019 crop, the regional crop yield was near the 10-year historical average of 491,662 tons.

Last year, wineries were reluctant to buy excess fruit, after 2018’s record crop of 588,864 tons left them with an abundance of grapes for near future years given reduced sales projections.

“The 2018 crop was the two-by-four that broke the camel’s back,” said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato-based wine and grape broker.

Industry analysts contend the oversupply of wine in the marketplace will result in a continuing adjustment this year, even in the North Coast, which grows the most expensive fruit. Some growers may take vines out to replant or let their vineyards go fallow. Others likely will have to accept less money when they sign or renew contracts with wineries.

“We did not have a lot buyers at the end of 2019,” said Glenn Proctor, a partner at Ciatti Co., a Novato grape and wine brokerage.

In fact, some large wineries such as Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa that are typically the biggest grape buyers also sold their excess grapes from their own estate vineyards.

“Some of the normal buyers aren’t just buying, but some of the normal buyers are actually selling,” Proctor said.

The big debate in the wine industry is how long will it take to get the market rebalanced?

Clements said it could take up to another two years, depending on how big the yield will be from the 2020 grape crop.

Some local growers said last year was challenging and they are likely to accept that prices may be flat or decrease when negotiating with wineries on new contracts.

“Buyers aren’t really active right now, ... but I’m a grower, so I’m entirely optimistic,” said Bret Munselle, a fifth-generation farmer with Munselle Vineyards who works about 700 acres around the Alexander Valley for up to 20 winery clients.

Last year, the Kincade fire destroyed about 3,000 new vines in the Munselle vineyards and crews are now replanting them. The fire forced Munselle to leave some cabernet sauvignon grapes on vines because wineries would not accept the fruit due to smoke taint concerns. Overall, the yield was near the historical average for the vineyard, he said.

“Prices will be down,” Munselle said for 2020 as more growers’ contracts with wineries expire. “We have been going up in price in most varieties, especially in cabernet. ... There is a correction in the market.”

For the 2019 harvest, Sonoma County had an average price per ton of $2,824, which was up 0.2%, for an overall value of $630 million. The price per ton of major varieties increased slightly with the exception of cabernet sauvignon, which was down 1.8% to $3,058 per ton.

All major Sonoma County grape varieties were down in tonnage crushed last year with pinot noir having the biggest decrease of 21% to 46,120 tons, according to an analysis by the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group.

The average price per ton last year in Napa County was up 4% to $5,797 for an overall value of $892 million. That was driven by the continuing popularity of cabernet sauvignon at an average of $8,009 per ton, Clements said. The grape yield was down 12% for cabernet sauvignon from Napa, but it was still the second-largest crop for the variety since 2000 at 78,146 tons.

Mendocino County growers harvested 67,210 tons of grapes for an overall crop total of $112 million, while crews in Lake County picked 46,644 tons for a total wine grape crop of $82 million.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223.

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