Grapes have overtaken lumber as the leading agricultural crop in rugged Mendocino County, the Northern California region associated more with redwoods than red wines.
Recently released figures show that the 2002 Mendocino grape crop was valued at $81 million, compared to $54 million for Mendocino logs delivered to local mills, said Dave Bengston, county agricultural commissioner.
It was the second year in a row that grapes crushed the competition. In 2001, the grape crop was valued at $87 million compared with $80 million for timber.
"I don't think we're looking at anything temporary," Bengston said.
Mill owner Art Harwood sees the figures as another indicator of the slowdown in what was once the primary industry of the North Coast.
"Lumber's bleak," said Harwood, CEO of Harwood Products, one of the few remaining mills in the county. "The unfortunate thing is that we're right on the verge of really losing the forest products industry in California."
Factors behind the lumber downturn include global competition, stiffer regulations restricting logging, and the cost of doing business in California, Harwood said.
"You can't just point to one thing," he said.
Until 1997, timber beat all other agricultural crops in the county. That year, when timber took second place to the other crops combined, Bengston thought grapes might take the lead spot by about 2007.
"It happened a lot faster than I thought," he said.
Grape growers and vintners weren't popping any champagne corks over the new figures, pointing out that the value of their crop was down from 2001 because of a statewide grape glut and overseas competition that is hitting the industry hard.
"The grape industry itself is not exactly on the upswing," said Rhonda Hood, executive director of the North Coast Grape Growers' Assn.
Still, the emergence of the Mendocino crop shows the county's success in marketing itself, Hood said. Among other things, Mendocino is known for having a high percentage of organically grown grapes.
"The world is beginning to recognize Mendocino as a premium wine-grape-growing area, and sales are coming up," Hood said. "Also, people are seeing they're reasonably priced."
At Navarro Vineyards, in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, a lovely curve of green leading toward the coast, winemaker Jim Klein sees the new figures as a reflection of a shift toward grapes grown near the coast.
Still, he sees the overall trends as negative.
"I think the most important economic trend for Mendocino County is our soon-to-become status as the bedroom community for the North Bay," he said. "We may not have a long-lived agricultural anything in this county."
Harwood theorized that timber is at the bottom of its low cycle and may take the top crop status back from grapes in a year or two.
But in the long term, Bengston thinks grapes are here to stay.
Mendocino County is home to Fetzer Vineyards and has been catching the attention of critics and tourists looking for somewhere a bit more off the beaten track than the well-known wine regions of Sonoma and Napa counties.
News that grapes are the top crop of Mendocino County drew chuckles from some, since marijuana generally is considered to hold that title.
State agents reported seizing more than 100,000 plants in Mendocino County in 2002, with an estimated value of about $400 million.
Bengston, however, said the marijuana harvest may not be comparable since legal crops are valued at actual wholesale prices, unlike the murky world of illegal drug sales.
Bengston expects turmoil in the grape industry to be temporary, noting that the value of the crop has taken huge leaps in the last decade or so.
"I think 50 years from now, this is still going to be wine grape country," he said.