North Coast grape harvest shifts into high gear as oversupply looms large

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As chardonnay grapes dropped into the crusher Tuesday morning at Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma, winemaker Joe Nielsen was hopeful about his first fruit from the 2019 harvest as he watched while it was compressed into juice.

This is his 13th harvest but each year comes with challenges ranging from unpredictable weather to his grapes ripening all at the same time. That forces Nielsen to play a role akin to an air traffic controller at a busy airport to schedule pickup of the premium grapes.

“I just think, ‘What can we process in a day comfortably?’ That goes by the wayside when we don’t have a choice,” he said.

Opening day went well for Nielsen and his crew who picked 5 tons of grapes from a Russian River Valley vineyard. “The sun’s out. ... I will take it as a good omen,” he said.

Wineries across the North Coast are ramping up their picks this week, after the annual grape harvest kicked off three weeks ago with fruit that went specifically into sparkling wine. The grape picking season generates billions for the regional economy and remains Sonoma County’s largest cash crop.

Like Ram’s Gate, Kendall-Jackson and Mauritson Wines also had their first picks Tuesday of grapes destined for still wine.

For those Sonoma County wineries and many others, work crews began to bring in pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay grapes. They will be followed by other later grape varieties in a harvest season expected to stretch into late October or early November.

“So far, so good,” said Randy Ullom, the winemaster at Kendall-Jackson, which was picking pinot noir in the Russian River Valley and sauvignon blanc in Lake County. “It is a year almost identical to last year in timing, almost to the day.”

Winemakers said they are bullish on the quality of the premium grape crop because late spring rains did not cause the heavy vineyard damage that had been feared since the storms occurred during peak bloom period.

The crop yield this year is expected to be average to above average in terms of grape tonnage as harvest nears its first full month.

That news in past years would have been reason to celebrate, but such an expected output now is causing consternation given the oversupply in the grape market while there is stagnating retail wine sales.

The sector has become a buyer’s market, especially after the 2018 grape crop reached a record $2 billion in value with an all-time high 588,864 tons of grapes crushed across Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

“We will have a minority of vineyards that won’t get picked in the North Coast,” said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. “This has happened before and it will happen again.”

Most large and medium-sized wineries grow their own grapes on their estate vineyards, though many also contract with independent growers who play a vital role in supplying smaller wineries with their fruit. Typically, 85% of the regional grape crop is under contract with wineries, leaving the rest to be snatched up on the spot market during harvest.

This year, though, that spot market is largely silent, analysts said.

“The need to sell the grapes has become a fever pitch as we come into harvest,” said Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. Clements said he has taken a few calls a day from growers searching for options for grapes not yet under contract for sale.

In past years, growers could rely on wineries or even themselves taking such excess grapes and making them into wine that would go into the bulk market for sale at a later date. But Clements said that option could be difficult this year to recoup expenses.

His wine brokerage firm has listed 18 million gallons of wine for sale on the bulk market, which indicates a large availability.

“The prices are coming down,” he said of the bulk wine market.

In addition, there is greater worry going forward among local growers over the consequences of E. & J. Gallo Winery’s $1.7 billion planned acquisition of more than 30 low-price wine and spirits brands as well as six wineries from Constellation Brands Inc.

The pending deal, announced in April, will have a significant effect because many regional growers sell fruit to both companies. The transaction between the two wine giants was expected to be finalized early in 2020, but federal regulators could push back approval until later next year.

Gallo is the country’s largest winery, with an estimated 70 million cases sold in 2018, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Meanwhile, at Mauritson, the sauvignon blanc grape crop was lighter this year for the Healdsburg winery, but all other varieties are at least average to above average in tonnage, owner Clay Mauritson said.

Mauritson said he was pleased the weather so far has been cooperating, noting there has been few summer heat spikes that would prompt additional irrigation or threats of shriveling fruit on the vine before grapes are ripe to pick.

“It has been unbelievable,” he said. “Literally, you cannot ask for better weather. I feel like I have to knock on wood for saying that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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