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2012 North Coast grape harvest was largest ever

Crossbarn Winery's cellar master Andy Cooper fills barrels with chardonnay for aging at the Sebastopol facility, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.

(Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)
Published: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.

The 2012 North Coast grape harvest was both the largest and most valuable in history, far exceeding the expectations of the region’s wineries and growers.

Growers pulled in an estimated $1.4 billion worth of grapes on the North Coast last fall, a whopping 58 percent increase from 2011, according to preliminary figures released Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The size of the region’s grape crop grew 46 percent in 2012, when wineries crushed 552,874 tons of grapes from Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties combined. It was the largest since the bumper crop of 2005, when North Coast growers brought in 505,576 tons worth $1.1 billion.

“It’s very impressive,” said Nick Frey, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. “We knew it was good, we had no idea it was this good. After two tough years for growers, this is really great news, and it’s going to have a good impact on our local economy. It’s a huge increase in grape revenues.”

The 2012 grape harvest set new records across California, where the statewide crush surpassed 4 million tons for the first time in history.

“What’s amazing to me is that it surprised most in the industry, for sure,” said Brian Clements, vice president and partner with Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato grape and wine broker. “I’m getting phone calls from wineries and growers saying, ‘Can you believe it?’ The reason that everyone’s surprised is that the demand was there throughout California.”

In Sonoma County, wineries crushed 266,101 tons of grapes last year, a 60 percent increase from the previous year. The value of the county’s crop grew 67 percent to $581 million.

“Many wineries will be able to replenish their inventories, because after the short harvests of 2010 and 2011, wineries were scrambling to be able to make wines and keep their customers happy, and sell wines not only locally, but also across the country and around the world,” said Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners.

The size of Sonoma County’s pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon crops all reached record levels and also retained high quality, which is not always the case during a bumper crop, Clements said. There could be 1.7 million more cases of Sonoma County pinot noir produced from the 2012 vintage than the previous year, he estimated.

“The one that’s holding the winning ticket is the consumer, because there’s going to be fantastic wines produced from this vintage,” Clements said. “You could call it the vintage of the century. This is great.”

The weather throughout the growing season was ideal, and there were no sustained heat waves to send sugar levels spiking, said Scott Zapotocky, director of vineyards for Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol.

“It was a really sustained growing season, so when the grapes were coming into the winery we were seeing very good balance between sugar levels and the level of acidity of the grapes, as well as the most important thing, flavor development,” Zapotocky said. “To get all those things in harmony, while hitting our yield projections, it was an outstanding harvest.”

The increased tonnage was the main reason for the substantial revenue spikes in Sonoma and Napa counties. The average price of grapes in Sonoma County grew 4.8 percent to $2,182 per ton, and in Napa grape prices rose 5.6 percent to $3,579 a ton. Napa County’s crop grew 49 percent to 181,183 tons.

The large crop and strong prices were a boon to the region’s grape growers, who withstood short crops for two years in a row.

“It’s helped some growers, more in just catching up after difficult years,” said Glenn Alexander, owner of Bacchus Vineyard Management. “It lets some of them get a little breathing room. Definitely we’re seeing more investment back into the vineyard.”

That relief was necessary to keep some grape growers in the game, said Glenn Proctor, partner and broker in Ciatti Company, a San Rafael wine and grape brokerage.

“There were a few of these growers that were looking to sell their properties at distressed prices, because they weren’t making any money the last few years,” Proctor said. “It definitely benefits the growers, but from an industry and even a winery perspective, we want to see those suppliers stick around.”

Sauvignon blanc grew the most by volume in Sonoma County, recovering from a decimated crop in 2011. Growers harvested 17,086 tons of sauvignon blanc last fall, up 92 percent from the previous year. The county’s pinot noir crop grew 85 percent to 52,379 tons, and the zinfandel crop grew 76 percent to 23,107 tons. Prices for Sonoma County cabernet sauvignon grew 9 percent to $2,311 per ton.

In Mendocino and Lake counties, growers saw much sharper increases in prices, though their fruit was still less expensive than the grapes grown in Napa and Sonoma to the south.

Prices in Mendocino County grew 15 percent to $1,425 per ton, and the crop there grew 23 percent to reach 72,858 tons. In Lake County, prices rose 18 percent to $1,395 per ton, but the crop grew only 2 percent to 34,731 tons.

Altogether, wineries are going to have a lot of selling to do.

“I don’t want to sound pessimistic because I’m not, but this is what I call the ‘hangover from harvest,’” said Zac Robinson, family owner of Husch Vineyards and volunteer with Mendocino WineGrowers. “We’ve got a lot of full tanks now. We’ve got to get them emptied, and into bottles, and into the consumers’ hands. ... We have lots of competition from imports, and we even have competition from other states now. And it’s not a sure thing that we’ll be able to sell through all this wine in a single calendar year.”

The abundant crop, while it winds its way into bottles and onto store shelves, may impact the amount of bulk wine that wineries import from abroad, experts said.

Grape prices will likely hold steady, and the pace of buyers signing contracts may slow down, Proctor said.

“There’s inventory now, wineries are supplied, so I think they’re going to be much more hesitant to pay big prices, and they’re going to wait to go in and buy until they need it,” Proctor said.

Where wineries were constrained before, they may now have the chance to consider launching new brands or exporting to new markets, Proctor added.

“I think it will be really interesting, since 2012 was a particularly strong vintage here, but it was a very weak vintage in other parts of the world, particularly Europe,” Comfort said. “Now they will have a reason to try California wines, and Sonoma County in particular.”

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