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That record 2012 crop: Behind the numbers


By now you’ve all heard about California’s record 2012 harvest, at 4.4 million tons the largest ever. It edged out the previous record, in 2005, and was up 11% over 2011’s harvest, which was more in line with historical averages.

I don’t think anyone foresaw how big 2012 would be. Here in California, I remember the anecdotes that started to be heard last summer about “bigger than normal.” On Sept. 18, Allied Grape Growers, a Fresno-based growers association, predicted the crop would hit 3.7 million tons, which would have made it the second largest ever. That turned out to be a serious underestimate.

By harvest time the rumors of huge crops became frantic realities. On Oct. 19, I wrote, in my Vintage Diary, “Scattered reports of WMs [winemakers] running out of fermentation vessels, having to use storage bins, etc.”

As usual, the largest crops by variety were Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, in that order. Prices, as measured by dollars per ton, hit record levels, too: Red wines averaged $879 (up nearly 25% over 2011), whites $624 (up 15%)

Another way of appreciating how huge the crop was is to look at the production of individual varieties and compare them to past vintages. Nearly three-quarters of a million tons of Chardonnay were crushed in 2012, an astonishing 31.5% spike over 2011. Cabernet Sauvignon similarly saw a 20% increase over 2011, while even shy-bearing Pinot Noir was up a dramatic 45% (247,303 tons vs. 170,450 tons). I thought this latter number was so unbelievable, I double-checked it against the Districts where Pinot was grown. District 7 (Monterey-San Benito) was the biggest producer of Pinot in the state, clocking in at more than 54,000 tons–double that of the 2011 crop! Similarly in District 3 (Sonoma-Marin)  the Pinot crop was nearly double that of 2011. And so on, all down the line.

With Cabernet Sauvignon, District 4, Napa Valley, was the top producer, as usual, with just shy of 71,000 tons produced. Compare that to 2011’s 50,846, an increase of nearly 40%.

Was the vintage a good one? After all the hype and spin, it probably was. As I wrote on Sept. 18, “It’s the year nothing happened: No rain, no frosts, no damaging heat waves, no chilly temperatures, no smoke taint from wildfires, no mold, no spring shatter.” A heat wave in October sped up the picking process, while anticipated rains in the third week of October led to that crush rush. But overall, 2012 continued a string of successful harvests in California.

What will the impact be of the huge crush on prices? We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but it should have a temporizing effect. At least, growers won’t have the excuse of short crops to raise prices. And the continuing impact of the Recession also should encourage producers not to risk unreasonable spikes.

  1. Steve
    For me the interesting thing is what will happen to grape prices in CA. With so many of my friends buying bulk again in Chile there could well be an excess of bulk in the central valley again which is not good. We saw the repercussions’ of this when this happened in the early 2000’s. It is also driving up prices in Chile (and other countries) where we are trying to build from the ground up after the huge wine losses we incurred after the earthquake. Just means bulk producers are following the quick buck in Chile and not building something sustainable. So all very complicated and never predictable. That’s why we love it so much I guess.

  2. Steve, thanks for posting this. I was just going through the report recently as well and thought I might go back to your recent blog about whether high priced Napa Cab can compete in the current market. But, this is probably a better forum. In the report there’s lots of data and information for each district with some of the most interesting being the lowest price paid for ton, the weighted average, and the highest price paid. So, hold on to your hat… someone paid upwards of $11k+ per ton for Sonoma Cab (the high), and in Napa someone paid a whopping $50,000 per ton for five tons of fruit. Holy Shitaki! Pardon my french but that’s pretty impressive.

  3. I hope all is well, Steve. I can’t ever remember you skipping a post without a short note why. I almost set my watch by you in the mornings.

  4. Interesting read,Steve. What makes the numbers for CA wine less than what they may otherwise be is the disastrous harvest that Italy and other European countries had.

    Many of the corporate (read gigantic) wineries in America support their low-end tiers of wine with cheap wine from outside of the US. With the availability significantly reduced from Europe, bulk wine from the US will be more expensive. I don’t think that pricing will be headed downward significantly consequently.

  5. Why only talking about increase of harvested grapes and price. How many tons have been harvested per acre? Why this increase? Because of more vineyards or more use of pesticides or just the weather?
    What’s about the quality? Is nobody interested in that? In europe all top winemakers are talking about a reduction of harvested grapes per hectare to increase the quality. The results can be tasted.

  6. Blovinum, I’ve never been convinced that there’s a direct or indirect correlation between harvest quantity and quality. I know that lots of people say there is, but in most cases they’re just repeating something they read or heard.

  7. Hi Steve,
    I am convinced that there is a correlation. In average in Austria the winemakers get 50 hl out of 1 hectare. In southern Italy, you may find crop of 170 hl (hecto liters) out of 1 ha. It tastes like water and is the basic for a lot of cheep, unintersting “water” wines and sparkling wines in europes discounters. Just tate a Sauvignon from Sepp Muster (ma. 17 hl/ha) and the a.m. south Sauvignon.
    Cheers Chris


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