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Dormant Vineyard

FRIDAY - FEBRUARY 10, 2012 - YOUNTVILLE, CA - A recently pruned vineyard along Yount Mill Road north of Yountville. J.L. Sousa/Register

An across-the-board drop last fall in harvest tonnage of the area’s main grape varieties caused the value of the Napa Valley grape crop to decline by 8 percent for the second year in a row.

Down by 12 percent to a total of 121,137 tons, last fall’s reduced production brought the value of the county’s overall grape crush down to $413 million.

Area vintners and grapegrowers are blaming Mother Nature once again for the continuing drop in harvest heft.

Industry observers said the 2011 crush report — released midday Friday by the California Department of Food and Agriculture — reinforced what they already knew.

Not even slight price increases of 2 to 5 percent for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, respectively, were enough to counter crop deficits last fall.

Problematic weather, especially rainstorms during the setting of the fruit in May and early June, was the primary cause for the drop in production, noted industry analyst George Schofield.

Last year’s total tonnage “was the lowest level since the 115,889 of 2008, and the third lowest since the year 2000. Particularly, that rain in June affected the set of the fruit ... growers ended up with a lot of pips that didn’t produce grapes.”

For example, Schofield pointed out that last fall’s chardonnay crop — 20,951 tons, a 23 percent decline over the previous harvest — was the smallest since the crush of 1984.

And the sauvignon blanc crop came in 29 percent lighter than the previous harvest, down more than a third from a record high in 2009.

“Sauvignon blanc production in 2011 fell to 32 percent below the record high level of 12,514 tons reached in 2009 and was the lowest level since the 7,153 tons of the 2004 harvest,” the Napa industry watcher added.

The only surprise in this year’s grape crop report was that the drop in tonnage and overall value wasn’t as bad as had been predicted by wine industry locals, said Mike Fisher, partner with St. Helena’s Global Wine Partners.

“Actually, I was expecting tonnages to be less,” Fisher said Friday as he was leafing through the 127-page state agency document. “While cabernet sauvignon (tonnage) was down

9 percent last year, looking at an average over the past five years it’s only down by 4 percent.

“I wasn’t surprised by the price increase for cabernet sauvignon — since 2008 prices have been declining, but I think they’re on the rise, and I think we’ll see that reflected next year. The report shows we did a lot better than I thought we would.”

Tonnage down, prices up

The 2011 Napa County grape harvest weighed in at 121,137 tons, down

12 percent from last year’s crop, which registered a 3 percent drop from a bumper crop in 2009.

Cabernet sauvignon remains king of all Napa Valley grapes, even though tonnage dropped 9 percent last fall, to 50,580 tons. Cabernet accounted for more than 40 percent of Napa Valley’s 2011 harvest.

At an average of $4,683 per ton, the price for Napa cabernet was up by

5 percent last year. “Napa cabernet sauvignon grapes alone had a value of $237 million or 57 percent of the total 2011 Napa grape value,” advised Sue Brewster, who works with Schofield in analyzing trends and issues contained in industry reports and surveys. “Napa Valley chardonnay was a distinct second at $48 million, or 12 percent of the crop value.”

Chardonnay tonnage took a serious hit last fall, down 23 percent to 20,951 tons. The average price for a ton of Napa chardonnay was $2,275, a hike of about 3 percent.

The valley’s other early-maturing Burgundy variety, pinot noir, registered a 19 percent drop at harvest (1,400 tons), to 6,005 tons. That decline in production came on top of a 15 percent hit the previous year. Pinot noir tonnage has steadily declined in Napa since the record crop of more than 10,000 tons in 2005. With a

2 percent price hike, the average paid last year for a ton of pinot noir was $2,529.

Sauvignon blanc production suffered the most last year, with a 29 percent decline in harvested fruit. The sauvignon blanc crop weighed 8,460 tons, a drop of more than 3,400 tons. The average price paid for a ton of sauvignon blanc grapes was $1,842, a

2 percent hike.

Merlot production also dropped substantially — 13 percent to 16,497 tons. Also realizing a 2 percent price hike, the average price paid for a ton of merlot was $2,572.

Additional tonnages and average prices paid for other Napa Valley grape varieties in 2011 include:

• Pinot gris, 567 tons, $1,846

• Semillon, 687 tons, $ 2,964

• Viognier, 158 tons, $2,764

• Riesling, 354 tons, $2,949

• Cabernet franc, 2,887 tons, $5,189

• Malbec, 904 tons, $4,067

• Petit verdot, 2,310 tons, $4,855

• Petite sirah, 2,988 tons, $3,155

• Syrah, 2,104 tons, $3,012

• Zinfandel, 3,590 tons, $2,872

The highest price paid for a ton of grapes in Napa County was for the Rhone variety, rousanne — $7,061. But there are only 32 acres of it grown in the county, most of which is planted in Carneros.

Sonoma and state statistics

The value of the grape crop in neighboring Sonoma County also plummed last year, with growers earning a total of $345 million, a drop of 9 percent. That came on top of a 17 percent decline in crop revenue in 2010. Tonnage was also down considerably last harvest, a drop of 13 percent to 166,070 tons.

Sonoma’s chardonnay crop was a full 20 percent lighter in 2011, weighing in at 52,276 tons, while cabernet sauvignon was down 12 percent to 32,937 tons.

Grape prices for these two varieties remained about the same in Sonoma County last year — $1,843 average for a ton of chardonnay, $2,107 for a ton of cabernet sauvignon.

Statewide, the 2011 grape harvest measured 3,869,894 tons, down 3 percent from the previous year, which also registered a 3 percent decline.

Last year, chardonnay accounted for the largest percentage of California’s harvest volume at 14.4 percent. Cabernet sauvignon was second at

9.9 percent of the total crush.

The average price paid for a ton of grapes in California was a record high of $589, up 8 percent from 2010 and

3 percent above the previous high set in 2009. The average price paid for red wine grapes increased by 12 percent, to $703, while the average price paid for white wine grapes was $541, a hike of 11 percent.

Grapes grown in Napa County received the highest average price statewide again last year — $3,407 per ton, up 5 percent from the previous year. Sonoma County growers received the second highest return of $2,081, up 3 percent from 2010.

“The crush report confirms what growers already know — prices have turned the corner and demand for California winegrapes looks strong,” noted John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. “Our focus is to make sure California growers are positioned to meet the higher demand and that we don’t lose market share to foreign growers.”

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