Observations on the 2008 Final Grape Crush Report
The 2008 crop, measured by tons, was nearly identical to 2007’s. The crush has actually been quite consistent over the past 10 years, fluctuating between 1999’s low and 2005’s record high; but if you go back to the ten years before that — to 1989 — this decade’s crops have been far higher: always in excess of 3,000 tons, whereas California did not see a crop above 3,000 tons until the banner year of 1997. The large crops of recent years clearly reflect increased plantings. The 2009 numbers won’t be out for another year, but based on what I see in my travels, there aren’t a lot of new vines going into the ground these days. California’s crush may be in a holding pattern for some time, barring some unusual weather.
Chardonnay remains the most widely crushed wine grape variety, accounting for 15.4% of the total. The second leading percentage of crush was Thompson Seedless, and let’s not make the mistake of thinking all those bland green grapes went only onto tables. (Does the number 74.9 mean anything to you?) In third place was Zinfandel, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Surprisingly, there was more Pinot Noir crushed — 2.9% of the total — than Syrah. Who woulda thought?
Dollars per ton spiked slightly in 2008, for all grape types, good news for growers, but prices still lagged behind their historic highs of the mid-1990s, for both red and white wines. But if you drlll down into specific varieties, you find a different story. Napa grapes, mainly Cabernet, were up a modest 5% over 2007, but Chardonnay was up 14%, and Merlot prices increased by 10%. Zinfandel, though, fell 1%. Poor Zinfandel. For all the affection we Californians feel toward Zin, its price remains mired in the basement: about $463 dollars a ton in 2008, lower than almost every other red variety in the state, except for Alicante Bouschet, Barbera and Dornfelder.
And Pinot Noir? Red hot. At $2,094 a ton, it was the most expensive variety of all, red or white, except for certain rare and exotic varieties, such as Aleatico.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about sugar levels in grapes coming down, with consequent lower alcohol levels, but the data don’t support this claim. The average brix level from 2007 to 2008 rose in every important red variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Ditto for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Based on the 2008 data, it’s hard to make predictions. The upward trend in dollars per ton over the past few years undoubtedly hit a speed bump during the third quarter of 2009. We can’t really expect that trend to continue. Sure, certain vineyards will continue to out-perform, because their grapes are in high demand. (I was up in Napa yesterday and people were speculating about who it was that paid $27,500 a ton for 18.7 tons of Cabernet in a single deal, as the Crush Report showed. I think I know, but can’t say. By the classic formula of the bottle price equaling 1% of the grape price, that would come to $275 per bottle.) I expect 2009’s Crush Report to be disappointing, with prices down across the board.