Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lees Is More

Members of the California wine trade are busy these days reading the grape leaves from this past fall's harvest. That would be the Preliminary Grape Crush Report for 2009 issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

It provides all sorts of impressive statistics: Nearly 3.7 million tons of wine grapes were crushed, up 682,000 tons over the previous year and just 63,000 tons shy of the record high in 2005. Red-wine tonnage jumped 24 percent over 2008, white-wine tonnage 21 percent. The average price per ton was $601.44, down 2 percent from the previous year, though up slightly for red-wine grapes to about $649 per ton, while the cost of white-wine fruit slipped a bit to nearly $538.

For consumers, this increased production and lower costs for vintners should translate into less costly wine in a year or two, but that remains to be seen, given that the old economic principle of supply-and-demand also could have been knocked askew by today's volatile market.

Some of the report's more provocative food for thought is to be found in the reams of fine print that follow the summary. Growers look as if they are banking on chardonnay remaining California's favorite wine; more chardonnay was crushed than any other variety, accounting for 726,008 tons, up a staggering 160,000 tons over the previous year. And despite all the dissing merlot has received in recent years, plantings continue to expand, or at least hold steady, indicate the figures; 326,134 tons of merlot were crushed, up more than 100,000 tons over 2008.

The report raises at least one question worth pondering: Why is so much zinfandel priced $30 or more a bottle? Broadly speaking, winemakers are buying it at dollar-store prices, an average $457 a ton, down from $463 the previous year. This compares to an average $1,633 per ton for pinot noir and $1,068 per ton for cabernet sauvignon. Of course, averages can be misleading. In two of the state's principal zinfandel regions, the average price for zinfandel is substantially higher than the state average - $2,435 per ton in Sonoma County, $1,078 in the Sierra foothills.

And speaking of the Sierra foothills, the report seems to validate the popular view that several varieties other than zinfandel have a promising future in the region. Barbera, for one, sold for an average $1,213 per ton in the area, mourvedre for $1,365, vermentino for $1,500, verdelho for $1,246 and viognier for $1,263. Does that also mean that malbec at $1,514 a ton has a future in the foothills as a varietal? Not necessarily; that price simply could reflect a short supply, and the reality that malbec often is used in Bordeaux-style blends, the popularity of which is on the rise. But what are we to make of cabernet sauvignon, generally dismissed as a weak player in the foothills? Nevertheless, Mother Lode cabernet sauvignon fetched an average $1,149 per ton.

Industry insight on the report can be found at this feature on the trade Web site, while all the statistics themselves can be found here.


  1. Some color commentary: Merlot acreage has actually declined the last few years. The tonnage in 2009 is up mainly because 2008 was a poor-yielding year for Merlot.

    Zin priced over $30 may be numerous in terms of the number SKUs, but these are almost all produced and bottled in tiny amounts from old vines. And you can't plant a new vineyard of old vines, so there is quite a supply lag. The main reason the average price of Zin grapes is so low is that a lot of them still go into White Zin. Even red Zin grape prices have been depressed as there has been a conversion of quite a few high yielding acres of Central Valley white Zin into red Zin production in the past two years. Neither of these sources make it into the expensive bottlings, as you point out with the Sierra and Sonoma averages. Those Zin margins aren't quite as juicy as the wine!

  2. For whatever reason - Furlough Fridays? - the latest state report on grape acreage I could find is for 2005, which shows merlot plantings at that time up slightly.