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North Coast grape harvest breaks records

Salvador Flores prunes pinot noir wine grapes, Monday Feb. 10, 2014 in Sebastopol at a Balletto vineyard off Burnside Road.  (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Salvador Flores prunes pinot noir wine grapes, Monday Feb. 10, 2014 in Sebastopol at a Balletto vineyard off Burnside Road. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The good times kept rolling in 2013 for North Coast wineries and growers, thanks to another lucrative harvest that established new records for size and value.

Growers pulled in an estimated $1.42 billion worth of grapes on the North Coast last fall, a 2.2 percent increase from 2012, according to preliminary figures released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The size of the region’s grape crop grew 1.1 percent in 2013, with wineries crushing 562,036 tons of grapes from Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties combined. It surpassed 2012′s record-setting harvest, when North Coast growers brought in 555,854 tons worth $1.38 billion.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years and I can’t remember another time when we had two back-to-back big crops that produced high-quality wines,” said Brian Clements, vice president and partner with Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato grape and wine broker.

The 2013 grape harvest also set new records across California, where the statewide crush surpassed 4.23 million tons, up from 4.01 million tons in 2012.

Napa County growers again commanded the highest prices in California for their grapes, averaging a record $3,691 a ton, up 3.5 percent from 2012. Grape prices rose 3 percent in Sonoma County, to a record $2,249 per ton. The gap in prices between the two counties widened for the fifth consecutive year, reflecting the increasingly costly premium that wineries are willing to pay for Napa fruit.

Growers in Mendocino and Lake counties saw smaller price increases, less than 2 percent, to $1,446 and $1,422 a ton respectively.

Last year’s North Coast harvest was buttressed by excellent weather conditions, including no threat of rain. But a dearth of rainfall could have a major impact on the 2014 crop, notwithstanding last weekend’s storms.

“The luxury we enjoyed in 2013 in terms of being able to let fruit hang on the vine without the threat of rain is now problematic in 2014 in terms of the drought,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

The 268,140 tons of grapes harvested in Sonoma County in 2013 also set a record, barely eclipsing the previous record set in 2012. Gross revenues totaled $603 million, a 3.5 percent increase over 2012′s record.

Chardonnay was king of the 2013 crop in California, with 755,500 tons harvested across the state, up 2.7 percent and beating both the 2005 and 2012 vintages.

Sonoma County growers brought in 87,334 tons of chardonnay in 2013, an increase of 8 percent over 2012. Prices grew by 2.5 percent, to $1,940 per ton.

The cabernet sauvignon harvest was down by 6.5 percent to 43,730 tons. But prices were up 8.2 percent, to $2,501 per ton.

Pinot noir continued its strong run, with 54,142 tons of the varietal pulled off the vine in Sonoma County. Prices also were up 3.2 percent, to $3,118 per ton.

“The wines we have in the barrel from 2013 look fantastic,” said John Balletto, president of Balletto Vineyards & Winery. “We had just the perfect growing season. There was a little extra tonnage hanging out there.”

In Mendocino County, pinot noir commanded $2,652 per ton. Cabernet sauvignon displaced pinot noir as the county’s second-highest yield at 9,668 tons, behind chardonnay in the top spot.

Balletto said this year’s harvest could be smaller as a result of growers pruning differently because of drought conditions.

North Coast growers have been put on notice that water for irrigation and frost protection may be in short supply this year. The weekend storms have helped ease those concerns, with a whopping 20.17 inches of rain falling in Monte Rio, according to the National Weather Service.

More good news, Kruse said, is that the last two years of bumper grape crops means there is a lot of wine already on hand.
“It means there’s wine in barrels available for the marketplace, which will help Sonoma County get through the 2014 harvest, and hopefully propel us into a good 2015,” she said.

But another bumper crop this year could result in capacity problems and down the road moderate grape prices, Clements said.
“If you have another big crop, where are you going to put it all?” he said.





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