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Winegrape crop hits $1.5B new record in California North Coast

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Another banner year of pricing gains for California North Coast cabernet sauvignon grapes offset weather-dampened tonnage for chardonnay, allowing the region to eke out a new record 1.50 billion winegrape crop last year, according to figures released Friday in the first official tally.

Tonnage in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties was 464,765 last year, up 7.8 percent from 2016 and 5.9 percent from the five-year average, based on the California Grape Crush report, compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The report is a benchmark for grape-purchase prices and strategy.

Statewide, it was another 4 million-ton winegrape harvest, with tonnage down just 0.6 percent to 4.01 million tons.

But North Coast average grape pricing was up nearly 9 percent from 2016 and almost 15 percent above average. Napa County’s average topped reached a new high of $5,175 a ton, up 10.4 percent for the year and almost 19 percent above average.

That was led by an 8.4 percent rise in the weighted-average price of Napa cabernet sauvignon, the county’s top variety, also to a new high, of $7,421 a ton. That was about 16 percent above the five-year average, for a second straight year.

“That is by far the highest price ever,” said Brian Clements of Novato-based Turrentine Brokerage, a dealer in grapes and bulk-sold wine. He noted that the price for the intense red grape in 2000 was $3,123 a ton. “These increased prices are great news for growers, but it puts a lot of pressure on wineries and their (brand) programs. I hear a lot of wineries are moving programs out of Sonoma County and Napa County because of the price of grapes. It is very hard to increase the bottle price in the marketplace.”

For Sonoma County’s top winegrape variety, chardonnay, the average price jumped 7.9 percent to $2,317 a ton, 11 percent above average. It went up 4.7 percent to $2,738 in Napa, 5.6 percent to $1,333 in Mendocino and 3.3 percent to $1,303 in Lake.

Weather played a big factor in the chardonnay price, according to Clements and Glenn Proctor of San Rafael-based grape and wine brokerage Ciatti Co. Sonoma County’s chardonnay crop was nearly 19 percent lighter, at almost 61,000 tons, and tonnage was off from the average by the same proportion.

“It’s the lightest crop since the 2011 crop of 52,000 tons,” Clements said. “This is directly related to the two heat waves we had.”

The 2017 winegrape season was a roller-coaster ride of heavy rain, wind and blistering temperatures, in particular, several back-to-back days of triple-digit temperatures and thunderstorms in September.

“It knocked the socks off the tonnage,” Proctor said.

Chardonnay tonnage also was down about 20 percent in Napa and Lake counties, to 20,600 and 1,900 tons, respectively, and off by almost 23 percent in Mendocino, to 23,300 tons. Tonnage was about 20 percent below average in Napa and Sonoma counties but only 4 percent lower in Mendocino and 10 percent in Lake.

In the North Coast, only Lake County had more tons of grapes crushed last year than in 2016, which was among the top-tonnage years for most of the counties. Nearly 205,000 tons of Sonoma County grapes were brought in, down 9.5 percent from 2016 and 10 percent from the average. Napa County tonnage was 141,578, off 7.5 percent from the year before and 7.8 from the average.

Mendocino County brought in 70,488 tons, down almost 10 percent for the year but still just above average. Lake County tonnage was up 2.3 percent last year, to 47,783, which was almost 11 percent above average. Because of challenges and costs involved with planting new vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties, growers have been developing vineyards in Mendocino and Lake.

Part of western Solano County also is part of the North Coast appellation, but those numbers are not broken out separately in the crush report from sales of grapes from the eastern side of the county, which go in lower-priced wines.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.