North Coast growers start the season on an up-market

North Coast growers start the season on an up-market

“We’ve been incredibly busy since December brokering grapes and bulk wines for this segment of the market.”

After slumbering through the first half of 2015, the market for California coastal wine grapes has been re-energized by last season’s lightest crop in three years and continuing lively demand for wines priced at $10 a bottle or higher, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.

“We’ve been incredibly busy since December brokering grapes and bulk wines for this segment of the market,” says Brian Clements, vice president of Turrentine Brokerage, based in Novato, Calif. “In fact, the first quarter of this year has been our busiest first quarter in recent memory. It’s a seller’s market in Napa and Sonoma countie for Cabernet Sauvignon. Although not quite there yet, it’s starting to become a seller’s market in Lake and Mendocino counties, too, for the same variety.”

Market activity started perking up midway through last season when vines began showing signs of lower yields. As it turned out, 2015 wine grape production was down considerably throughout California’s coastal wine grape counties.

In District 3 (Sonoma), Chardonnay production tumbled 27 percent below 2014 levels, which was 15 percent under the previous five-year average.

This follows a string of three straight years of above-average North Coast California wine grape crops, including record production in some areas for certain varieties.

Statewide, average prices for the 2015 crop declined 12 percent for all red wine grapes to $783.58 per ton and 10 percent for all white wine grapes to $538.67/ton.

Prices for Central Valley wine grapes continue to lag behind the coastal areas due to slumping sales in this region’s primary market– wines priced under $10 a bottle

Prices for most varieties in the North Coast as well as the Central Coast are stable or increasing, Clements notes.

For example, prices for grapes grown in District 4 (Napa County) rose 6 per cent from 2014 to an average price of $4,329.75 per ton, the highest in the state. Returns for growers in District 3 (Sonoma and Marin counties) grapes averaged the second highest, $2,440.74, up 5 percent from 2014.

Meanwhile, Cabernet Sauvignon prices rose to record levels of $2,642 per ton for Sonoma County grapes and $6,224 per ton for Napa Valley fruit. In some cases, new contract prices are even higher, Clements adds.

“It’s a manic market for Cabernet Sauvignon,” Clements says. “Everyone, it seems, is looking for it but not a lot is available. It’s the same with Russian River and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”

The climbing prices reflect balanced to short inventories of bulk wines, strong sales of North Coast wines and the limited supply of grapes for sale.

“Over half the grapes growing in North Coast vineyards are committed to three- to five-year production contracts,” Clements says. “We seeing more multi-year deals than in recent years, because the wineries are motivated to make sure they have the quality and quantity of grapes to meet demand. Wineries seemed to be increasingly confident that consumers are willing to buy more of the higher-priced wines they’re producing.

Hope for a good 2016 North Coast wine grape season have been buoyed by more winter rain than usual, which has filled reservoirs and soil profiles with much needed-water. The lack of really cold weather appears to be helping to push this year’s crop off to an early start.

“In some typically early coastal areas, we’re seeing some Chardonnay blocks starting to bud out about 10 to 14 days sooner than usual,” Clements says. “While not tremendously surprising, it’s early enough to raise a few eyebrows among growers.”

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