Wineries report good quality and strong yields in 2013 crop

High-quality fruit produced on the Central Coast has buyers snapping up different varieties, expert says

jlynem@thetribunenews.comApril 8, 2014 

With a hand from Mother Nature, Central Coast wine-grape growers had a good crush last year, helping the state reach a record high harvest and bringing top-notch fruit to wineries eager to ease pent-up demand for California wines.

Although many North County growers reported about average to slightly above-average yields per acre in 2013, it was a “nice crop year with good quality,” said Dana Merrill, owner of Mesa Vineyard Management and Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery in Templeton.

“Wineries were happy with the quality they got,” Merrill said. “There was ample production to fill all the contracts. There wasn’t an avalanche of unsold tons.”

More than 243,000 tons of wine grapes were produced in District 8, the Central Coast region encompassing San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Final Grape Crush Report released last month.

That’s up 11.5 percent from the previous year when more than 218,000 tons were crushed. (Figures aren’t available for just San Luis Obispo County.)

Statewide, the 2013 crush hit a record high of approximately 4.7 million tons, up 7 percent from the previous record high 2012 crush of about 4.4 million tons.

Red wine varieties accounted for the largest share of all grapes crushed, the report said. Excellent weather conditions made for a bountiful harvest statewide, including along the Central Coast, said Jeff Bitter, vice president of operations for Allied Grape Growers, a Fresno-based wine-grape growers association that tracks the wine-grape market.

“A lot of that has to do with bud fruitfulness, which is actually determined the year before,” he said. “If you have a nice spring, say sunny, warm days in May and June, it’s likely you will have higher bud fruitfulness, and the following year you will have more bunches per vine.”

Bitter said he expects wine-grape crop levels to increase on the Central Coast in the next three to five years as newer vineyards already in the ground come into production. Bitter noted that it takes nearly five years for a vineyard to reach a level of full production.

“The challenge will be with water, or the lack thereof,” he said. “It’s really got a lot of people’s attention about how or if any further development occurs in the near future. Without any sustainable program for water supply, it’s really going to change the dynamics in the immediate term and people’s thoughts about developing vineyards in the Paso area.”

For now, the wine-grape crop reigns supreme in the county. With a value of $220 million, wine grapes were San Luis Obispo County’s most valuable crop last year. And the high-quality fruit produced locally has buyers snapping up different varieties, Merrill said.

Demand and pricing continues to be strong as well, especially for cabernet sauvignon. Grapes produced in District 8 received about $1,413 per ton last year, edging up slightly from $1,400 per ton in 2012. The average price per ton for white wine varieties was $1,207 in 2013, down from $1,268 in 2012.

Meanwhile, the average price per ton of red varieties increased to $1,485 in 2013 from $1,443 the previous year. In California as a whole, the average price per ton of all varieties in 2013 was $712.62, down 4 percent from the previous year.

“A number of people are calling us and coming in with a lot of interest in contracting grapes for next year,” said Merrill, adding that buyers are anticipating continued market demand and “they want to make sure they have the grapes.”

Yields for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes were at or slightly above average, and yields for cabernet sauvignon and merlot were slightly below, said Chrissy Wittmann, director of winemaking at Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards based in Templeton.

The lower yields on the Central Coast may have been the result of not getting quite as much rain as needed, said Wittmann, also noting that a good balanced crop is often preferred to one that is too large.

However, the quality of the fruit, she said, was excellent due in large part to a long growing season, especially for cabernet.

“We didn’t have any major events during ripening, so we could kind of let the cab hang out,” she said.

Many of the growers either met their yield numbers or harvested a little bit more than they estimated, and were overall pleased with 2013 and 2012, said Todd Azevedo, a broker at The Ciatti Co., a San Rafael-based wine brokerage firm.

“The quality is so good, and they know what they’ve got; a tangible good they know they can sell,” he said.

Wineries that had been decreasing prices may try to “stabilize pricing now and make more money,” Azevedo said. Although wines from 2013 may command higher prices on the retail side, consumers will be able to get more for their money, Azevedo added.

“With 2013 products, you’re getting what you’re paying for,” he said.

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