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Observations on the 2008 Final Grape Crush Report

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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.

  1. “3,000 tons”? Of course you mean 3 million tons. :)

  2. I know at least a dozen wineries who crush over 3,000 tons per year.

  3. It’s a shame about dornfelder’s unpopularity and low cost…have you tried the Huber Dornfelder lately? Phenomenal wine.

  4. Steve,

    Don’t cry for Zinfandel; the price of course is dragged down by heavy crops in the Central Valley, destined for white Zin. Note that Fresno grapes were going for $250 on average, but for $2,400 here in Sonoma , not too shabby.

  5. Huber makes a great dornfelder and dornfelder port!

    It was the only vine to survive the 08 frost without being decimated.

  6. If you dig a bit deeper – the prices per ton don’t compute to reality.
    Where can you find district 3 Pinot Noir for $1,000/ton – even if it’s the winery’s own vineyard, I believe they are suppose to value at the prior years average price per ton (at least for grape fee calculations). I hear the going (hear real) rate in RRV is over $4k/ton and leaning towards $5k/ton for quality fruit – it will be interesting to see if these prices last. It’s no wonder bottle prices are going up – fruit and FO barrels have seen the biggest increases ever in the past 5 years. Remember when your dad said never buy a rolex from a saleperson selling out of his car….don’t commit to buying fruit until you walk the dirt, spend time with the vines and taste the fruit!

  7. Altho I tend to be a lumper, that is a bit difficult when looking at grape crush reports. Just as individual vineyards may have totally different microclimates from a vineyard two hills over, price of grapes/Ton has to be split up, if nothing else, between high end(low yield tonnages/acre) and lower end (high yield tonnages/acre). There is a grower 50 miles east of Paso Robles who several yrs ago sold his grapes exclusively into the Japanese market, and got only $300/T for his Cab. However, he machine pre-prunes, machine harvests, AND hangs 12(yes, twelve)Tons/acre. He was happy as a clam with that in that his per acre costs ran only about half that. We, and many folks around us, in the Templeton Gap area of southern Paso Robles AVA hang Cab between 1-2.5 Tons/acre, and garner $3100/T for Cab and up. Pinot in the cool to cold valleys of the Templeton Gap last yr sold from between $3000 to $3500/Ton, and in south county SLO, I heard of $4000 to $4500/ Ton(tho this is not first hand knowledge).

    So not only location, but also grower mentality(ie, high yield vs low) plays a big part in this. That is what makes the crush totals so tough to interpret. Frankly, it would be very helpful if the crush totals broke down the yields into under 3T/acre vs over 3T/acre. Some of us nutty people hang
    1-2.5 T/acre, but that is where great wines come from. Real terroir, incidentally, generally tends to be found in the lower yielding vineyards.
    Obviously this is a generality, but it holds pretty much true.

    Also factored in would have to be the high density plantings, eg, 2300 vines/ acre vs 870 on a traditional 5X10 planting. Here, lbs of fruit/vine would make a lot more sense to quantify, in that some vines may only have a handful of clusters/vine. Crush stats do have their value, but one does have to know what exactly all the parameters are…which in
    some cases may skew the information so that it doesn’t make sense.

  8. Gregorio says:

    very interesting prices up in RRV, will be very interested to see if these “wineries’ paying this price can actually pay for their grapes when the invoices go out…

  9. Larry: Agree that the devil is in the details when it comes to crush reports. But they do provide an interesting macro view of things.

  10. hey cheers for that… very informative – i’ve added your blog to my netvibes account – thanks :)

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