Name: Richard Sauret
Organization: Independent Grape Growers of the Paso Robles Area
What he said then:
In February, The Tribune reported that yields from the 2009 grape harvest were up 37 percent in District 8 from the slim pickings in 2008.
The district includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Statewide, yields were up 11 percent.
Grape growers like veteran Richard Sauret were eager for rains in 2010 after several dry growing seasons.
“It will definitely help this year,” said Sauret, a Paso grower since 1952 and president of the Independent Grape Growers of the Paso Robles Area. “It would be great to get two, three or four years like this in a row, but I don’t think anyone will guarantee it. Mother Nature will do what she wants to do.”
What he says now:
Cooler average temperatures this year are pushing the grape harvest in the North County a few weeks later than usual.
How late depends on the particular location and how cool the weather has been, Sauret added. The Templeton Gap is further behind than areas where temperatures broke 100 more often.
“If they can get them (grapes) in before we get a rain this fall, it’s going to be exceptional quality,” he said. “If we get a rainstorm on some varieties, it doesn’t take long for them to go rotten.”
He describes this year’s crop as “back to average” after a few years of smaller crops. But he and others have been “dropping a lot of fruit” — snipping off inferior berries to concentrate the vines’ energies into those that remain. Such practices, when followed, can also guard against over-production industry-wide.
Large harvests can be a boon for bargain hunters. With unsold stock from previous years, wineries are being selective — and frugal — when buying bulk grapes.
“They are very, very choosy,” said Sauret, whose organization represents 205 vineyards and another 75 associate members. “There are quite a few growers that have yet to sell fruit. This close to harvest, that’s unfortunate. Some of them are probably not going to get them sold.”
And even some with contracts could see losses due if they weren’t careful during the cool, damp spring.
“There was a considerable amount of mildew in the vineyards this year,” Sauret said.
Severe mildew can split grape skins, while even a small amount makes a winemaker’s job more difficult during fermentation.
If fruit doesn’t meet a winery’s expectations, it can refuse the purchase.
“They’ve been dropping contracts,” Sauret said. “Some of them have been backing away from signed contracts and so far, it’s been easy for them to do that.”
Demand for pinot noir and syrah continue to wane, he added. Pinot’s average base price per ton in District 8 dropped to $2,715 in 2009 from $3,107 the previous year, down 12.6 percent.
Production jumped 34 percent to 8,771 tons last year. Syrah’s average price was down almost 6 percent to $1,187 last year.
Average prices for chardonnay, one of San Luis Obispo County’s most-grown varietals, also dropped about 9 percent.
Cabernet sauvignon — which saw a whopping 53 percent production increase in 2009 — nevertheless saw a slight jump, almost 3 percent, to an average of $1,031.
As always, prices for individual tons vary widely depending on the quality of the fruit and the circumstances of the sale. Those with a history of excellence have fewer worries than the unprepared.
“Quality will prevail anywhere, everywhere,” Sauret said. “Growers have to do their homework.”
But for those without contracts or unready for the expense and unpredictability of operating a vineyard, things remain grim.
“For some, it’s right down there almost to where you can’t make any money,” Sauret said. “I’ve seen two or three people that have just walked away from their vineyards. I’ve heard there are a number more of them in foreclosure. It’s mainly the new buyers. They really didn’t realize the amount of labor that it takes.”
— Raven J. Railey