Early-harvest spot market prices soften for all but one North Coast wine grape variety

Early-harvest spot market prices soften for all but one North Coast wine grape variety

With many varieties maturing earlier than usual this year and warm weather in the first part of September, harvest activity in the North Coast is about two weeks to a month ahead of normal and already at a fever pitch, Clements reports.

Sustained growth of California wine sales have kept prices steady for an estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of the state’s 2014 grapes used in making these wines. But, for the remaining 5 percent to 10 percent of the grapes grown this year – those not sold on multi-year contracts and available for sale on the spot market – prices have dropped as the harvest gets underway. In some cases, they’ve dropped significantly.

The lone exception is North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, reports Brian Clements, vice-president of Turrentine Brokerage, Novato, Calif.

“The market for these grapes is, basically, unphased,” he says. “Growers and wineries continue to enjoy very strong, healthy sales of North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon. These grapes are nearly immune to what is going on in the market for other California wine grapes this year.”

Including the harvest of grapes picked for sparkling wines, which finished in the first week or two of September, about 40 percent of the North Coast crop had been picked by mid-month, Clements estimates.

“We don’t yet have a really good feel for the overall size of the 2014 North Coast crop,” he says. “Clusters have sized nicely. Overall, tonnage in this region may be average to a little above average. Most likely, though, production will be below levels of the last two seasons. And quality for all of California’s wine grape crop this year is very good due to excellent growing conditions.”

With many varieties maturing earlier than usual this year and warm weather in the first part of September, harvest activity in the North Coast is about two weeks to a month ahead of normal and already at a fever pitch, Clements reports.

However, proper scheduling between growers and winemakers so far has minimized any backup of contracted grapes waiting to be crushed at the wineries, despite prospects of this year’s larger-than-average crop, he adds.

“Because of the big 2012 and 2013 crops, available tank space is prime real estate in North Coast wineries this season,” he says. “Wineries are taking contracted amounts. However, except for Cabernet Sauvignon, many wineries are not taking contract overages. So far, we haven’t seen any grapes turned away by wineries for lack of storage space.”

Clements offers this sampling of North Coast spot market prices offered early and late this season for 2014 grapes.

Sonoma County

Cabernet Sauvignon: This year’s crop is all but sold out, he notes. Currently, if available, these grapes are selling in the range of $2,800 to $2,900 per ton.

Chardonnay: Wineries were offering $1,800 to $2000per ton for grapes available for contracts early this year. Now, they’re paying $700 to $1,000 a ton for excess tonnage or other spot-market Chardonnay.

Merlot: Buyers have been scarce. Early-season prices ranged from $1,400 to $1,600 per ton, falling to $850 a ton being offered for over-contract tonnage.

Pinot Noir: “Sonoma County Pinot Noir has held its own throughout the year,” Clements says. “Early-season pricing of Russian River and Carneros grapes was about $2,500 to $2,700 a ton. Now, any fruit in excess of contract production is selling for $1,450 to $2,500 a ton.”

Sauvignon Blanc: What little was available for contracts early in the season was selling for about $1,300 to $1,700 per ton. That prices has since slipped to around $1,000 for any contract overage or other spot-market grapes.

Zinfandel: This year’s luke-warm market started the season with growers selling Zinfandel for $2,200 to $2,400 a ton. Currently, buyers are scarce and price continues to soften.

Napa County

Cabernet Sauvignon: “Any Napa Cabernet Sauvignon on the market now will be purchased immediately for $5,000 a ton or better,” Clements says.

Early-season pricing was $5,500 or higher, depending on AVA and quality history.

Chardonnay: Early-season contract prices for Napa Valley and Carneros grapes ranged from about $2,500 to $3,000 per ton. Prices have since slipped to $800 to $1,000 per ton on the spot market.

Pinot Noir: Napa Valley growers and winemaker of this variety, especially those in Carneros, are expecting reasonable yields along with great quality, Clements notes. Early this year, these grapes were being contracted for about $2,800 to $3,000 a ton. Any production now available is selling in the neighborhood of $1,200 per ton.

Growers unable to sell any tonnage in excess of amounts contracted with a winery have three options:

Seek another winery to buy the extra production.

Take their grapes to a custom crush site with the goal of selling the wine on the bulk market sometime in the next six to 18 months, depending on the grape variety. However, except for Cabernet Sauvignon, Clements doubts that’s such a good idea this year. “History tells us that, if the market price for a particular variety of grapes is underwhelming, so, most likely, will be the price of the bulk wine made from that grape.

Drop the grapes, and leave them on the ground unsold.

“I don’t expect to see any grapes left on North Coast vines this year,” Clements says. 

“The yields may not be as big as expected. Case sales are positive. So, except for Cabernet Sauvignon, wineries that have space are more likely to purchase respective varietal tonnages at reduced prices. And, overall, there’s not much uncontracted fruit.”

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