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The Juices Are Flowing

Bumper Crop, More Vineyards Drive Down Wine Grape Prices


It didn't take long to erase memories of two years of wine grape shortages in California.

This year's stellar growing season, combined with production from new vineyards, is creating a bumper crop of white-blend varieties such as Zinfandel, French Colombard, Grenache and Chenin Blanc. Central Valley growers without contracts for their grapes are getting stung by sinking prices on the spot market.

"We've been out scrambling, trying to find a home" for excess grapes that won't be covered by contracts, said John Wood, vice president of agriculture at Tejon Ranch Co., which has vineyards in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Slipping prices in the Central Valley could help restore some reason to wine prices, which have headed skyward the last two years, said Vic Motto, an industry consultant in St. Helena.

"Wine prices are going to start to become more sensible, I think," he said.

In the Lodi-Woodbridge region, an up-and-coming Northern California area that grows grapes used for blending by Robert Mondavi, Sebastiani Vineyards, E & J Gallo Winery and other big producers, contracted prices for most varieties have fallen 10% to 20% from last year's level.

"But those prices were 30% above anything we'd ever seen," said Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, a trade group. "So gross revenues will be up even though prices are off from last year."

In response to robust demand for premium wines in recent years, grape plantings have soared throughout California. In Lodi-Woodbridge, which includes Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, Chandler estimates that 5,000 more acres are in production this year than last, when grapes were harvested from about 55,000 acres.

Spot prices for Zinfandel grapes used in white Zinfandel wine have plunged this year to between $200 and $300 a ton, down from last year's $400 to $500. Prices are also softening for Merlot grapes.

This year's excellent weather conditions "allowed vines to produce bigger, heavier bunches," said Barry Bedwell, president of the 550-member Allied Grape Growers, a marketing cooperative in Fresno.

Wine-grape growers in the southern end of the Central Valley are typically the last to get the benefits of an up cycle and the first to feel the pinch when supply exceeds demand. This year is providing ample evidence, Bedwell said.

Meanwhile, prices in the prestigious coastal regions of Napa and Sonoma are holding steady, even with the sizable crops, "which proves the value of the appellation," Bedwell said.

Cabernet Sauvignon and other prized varieties are garnering prices double those of five years ago, Motto said.


Martha Groves can be reached by fax at (213) 473-2480 or by e-mail at

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