Erratic spring weather may add to Valley wine grape growers' costs

Published: Tuesday, May. 31, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 5B

Bruce Rominger's Yolo County wine grapes are, in a word, immature.

So are his processing tomatoes, languishing in a Winters field.

"We're behind, and things are moving slowly," Rominger said of his crops. "I'm not happy about this rain recently."

Wine grape growers in the Sacramento region, along with those tending other perishable crops like cherries and strawberries, are struggling through a series of fluke frosts and hailstorms. The cool, wet spring – for the second year in a row – has delayed growth, increased the threat of some diseases and snarled the harvest, as well as crushing, packing and shipping schedules.

The zany weather is adding to the California wine industry's headaches, which include depressed prices and a glut of grapes.

Kevin Steward, vineyard manager for Terra d'Oro Winery in Plymouth, is blunt about the effect of frost, snow, hail, rainstorms and cloudy days on some Sierra foothill vineyards.

"This has been a horrible season so far," he said. "This has been a pain in the neck. We've had wet weather, nothing is growing and we're a good month behind schedule."

He said a late frost in the foothills on April 7, followed by hail and snow, damaged wine grape varietals, such as Barbera and Sangiovese, that push out their fruit earlier in the season. While it's too early to predict if the cool spring will affect overall crop volumes, gloomy weather has stalled the growth of vines, buds and clusters.

"It's darn near June. The leaves should be big and green, the branches should be strong and thick," Steward said. "We're not seeing the color in the leaves we're used to."

John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, said wine grapes have not suffered dramatic damage statewide, but some individual growers and varieties in different locations have been hit by erratic weather.

"The cold snap was most severe just south of Monterey to Paso Robles, where they had frost," Aguirre said. "Yield will certainly be affected, but it will take a while to fully understand the implications."

While the wine grape crop statewide looks as if it may be smaller, normal summer temperatures could make up for lost time, Aguirre said.

The lowered yield may actually help the industry, which has been dogged by declining prices in recent years, as consumers opted for cheaper wines during tough times.

"Demand has remained strong, but the consumer has been shifting downward from ultra-premium wines to a lower price point," Aguirre said. "So an $80 bottle of wine that may have sold robustly five years ago has suffered a serious hit. Wines with higher price points are still struggling to gain market share."

Last year, some wine grapes were left on the vines, victims of tumbling prices and surpluses in certain varieties. The 2010 crush was down 3 percent from the previous year, while the average price of all varieties fell 5 percent.

Aguirre said wine grape prices this year are bouncing back across the board.

"There's a much better mood prevailing among growers, and wineries have increased interest in locking up supply," he said. "The dire circumstances of last year seem to have abated."

Other local growers are willing to see the wine glass half full when it comes to weather. Paul Bush, owner of Madrona Vineyards in Placerville, said he lost about 5 percent of his crop to snow and frost on May 14-15, but the long, cool spring means less need for irrigation. The mild temperatures could result in less mildew, since it's spurred more by higher temperatures than moisture.

"We're hoping to save on diesel costs and one full spray for mildew control," Bush said.

He said grape quality improves when the clusters are allowed to hang on the vine longer, as long as the delayed harvest doesn't creep into the fall's rainy season.


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