Grape harvest crushes 2009 expectations

A machine harvester prepares to head down a row of vines where it will shake off the fruit and send it into a bin during a night harvest at Castoro Cellars vineyard in San Miguel in August 2009. Photo  by Joe Johnston
A machine harvester prepares to head down a row of vines where it will shake off the fruit and send it into a bin during a night harvest at Castoro Cellars vineyard in San Miguel in August 2009. Photo by Joe Johnston The Tribune

Mother Nature brought a bountiful harvest to California grape growers in 2009, making last year only the second time in the past decade that the state’s crush has exceeded 4 million tons.

A total of 4,089,160 tons were crushed last year, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to the preliminary 2009 Grape Crush Report released Wednesday by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

In District 8, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, the total crop was more than 214,000 tons, up 37 percent.

For consumers, the record-producing year means high-quality wines at bargain prices, growers and winemakers say.

“They will be more consistently and readily available as there was more of it,” said Anthony Bozzano, assistant manager of sales and marketing for French Camp Vineyards in Paso Robles and Central Coast Wine Services.

He predicted that there will be “outstanding values’’ at discount stores that will snap up the high-quality bulk wine.

Those in the wine business cautioned, however, that the industry remains fragile. The recession caused wine drinkers to cut back on their purchases and prohibited some growers from selling their fruit for a decent price.

A year’s growth

Red wine grapes accounted for the largest share of all grapes crushed statewide at more than 2 million tons, up 24 percent from 2008. More than 1.6 million tons of white wine varietals were crushed, up 21 percent from the previous year.

District 8 saw a similar increase, with more than 133,000 tons of red grapes crushed. White grapes exceeded 81,000 tons.

“In San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, the 2009 crop was certainly larger than the very light 2008 crop, but relatively close to the five-year average for most varieties,’’ said Matt Turrentine, broker with Turrentine Brokerage in Novato. There were two exceptions, however. Pinot noir was up 47 percent and pinot grigio 60 percent from 2008, he said.

John Ciatti, partner in the Ciatti Co., the world’s largest grape and wine brokerage, said the firm knew the crush would be big — but not as big as it was. “The value end of our business remains strong and growing and a larger vintage was needed — but given the size of this vintage, we may see some weakness in demand even in that growing segment,” he wrote in a news release.

Sales of California wines have grown during the recession, but consumers have been trading down to less expensive bottles, Turrentine said.

“This trade down has created a challenging environment for the coastal areas of the state where more expensive wines are produced,’’ he said.

That includes San Luis Obispo County, he added.

“There’s strong demand for less expensive grapes,’’ he said. “There are a lot of high-end grape growers who are struggling. It’s a good thing that the areas that produced the biggest increases were in the Central Valley, where the grapes are grown and destined for less-expensive bottles of wine.”

According to the report, District 13, which includes Fresno, Madera, Alpine, Mono, Inyo, Kings and Tulare counties, had the largest share of the crush at more than 1.3 million tons.

While overall yields were larger, 2009 was a challenging year for some, said Coby Parker-Garcia, winemaker with Claiborne & Churchill in Edna Valley.

October, he said, brought drenching rains. Some growers, particularly some zinfandel growers in the North County, “struggled to bring fruit in before that date,” Parker-Garcia said, noting that his winery was successful in doing so.

“For our area, chardonnay and pinot noir for the Edna Valley, the quality was there and yields were there,’’ he said. “It will definitely be taken up by different wineries.’’

Richard Sauret, president of the Independent Grape Growers of the Paso Robles Area, who has planted grapes there since 1952, said the crop is probably the largest since 2005.

He’s not so sure what this year will bring, even with the heavy and welcome rainfall.

“It will definitely help this year, but we will see a bigger benefit next year,’’ Sauret said. “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.”