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Abundant Harvest for Wine Lovers

Times Staff Writer

California’s wine industry crushed a record amount of grapes last year, a harvest that is expected to produce both high-quality wines and great deals for wine lovers.

Just over 4.3 million tons of fruit were squeezed, according to the annual Grape Crush Report from the California Agricultural Statistics Service released Friday. That’s up 19% from 2004 and the largest amount since the state started tallying tonnage statistics in 1968.

The record harvest comes at a time of rising wine consumption in the United States. Americans sipped a record 274 million 9-liter cases of wine last year, a 2% gain from the previous year and a 17% jump from 2001, according to Adams Beverage Group, a market research firm. California turns out wine with a retail value of about $15.5 billion annually, according to analysts.

Cooler-than-average weather across much of the state during the September and October harvest created a bumper crop of high-quality grapes, said Bill Turrentine, president of Turrentine Brokerage, a Novato-based grape and bulk wine broker. Not only were there more bunches of grapes on the vines, but each berry also was larger than in previous years, he said.

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Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena left 60 tons of Monterey County grapes rotting on the vine at harvest because it had no room left at its winery. Phelps’ fermenters and tanks were full of fruit from other regions.

Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, the state’s largest wine-grape-growing cooperative, called the crop “astronomical.”

The harvest may be too bountiful for growers’ comfort, he said, noting that the wine industry has only recently recovered from a grape glut, which sent fruit prices plummeting and left wineries with millions of cases of surplus wine.

“We could have a challenge in 2006, depending on the size of the crop,” DiBuduo said. “You can expect wineries to try to keep the prices they are paying growers low based on supply and demand.”

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Broker Turrentine expects the large amount of wine made from the giant crush to result in short-term bargains but not a long glut.

“This excess is a one-time phenomenon,” he said.

With the exception of pinot grigio, there are not a lot of new vineyard acres coming into production, even as wine sales increase, Turrentine said. “So, within a year or so, sales increases will likely drink up the excess supply from 2005 and wine supplies will start to become relatively tight,” he said.

Turrentine believes that the short-term surplus will be especially good for consumers.

The best bargains are likely to be in the $10-to-$20-a-bottle price range, said Tom Shelton, chief executive of Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

The high quality of the grapes will allow winemakers to produce better mid-priced vintages than in previous years, said Shelton, whose company’s wines start at $30 a bottle.

Higher-end winemakers such as Phelps also will benefit. Shelton estimates that Phelps will produce as many as 20,000 cases of its $150-a-bottle Insignia Napa Valley red wine blend from the 2005 harvest. That contrasts with the 16,000 cases of the 2002 vintage currently on retail shelves and wine lists, he said.

Red wine varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir made up the largest share of the grapes crushed in 2005, according to the grape crush report. Vintners squeezed 2.2 million tons, up 35% from 2004.

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The crush of wine varieties such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc totaled 1.5 million tons, up 34% from 2004.

These large gains were damped by a decline in the crush of grapes for brandy, juice concentrate and other food products, according to the state report.

Because of the big supply of grapes this last harvest, wine-grape growers received only slightly more money for their fruit.

Red grapes brought an average price of $634.40 a ton, up 1% from 2004. Farmers collected $503.15 a ton for white grapes, up 3% from 2004.

Predictably, wine grapes from Napa County had the highest average price: $2,989.36 a ton, up 2% from 2004, the state said.


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