Volatile grape market to continue while growers and vintners strengthen their community leadership

Surplus wine and grape volumes will add continued “volatility” to the 2020 market where Sonoma County vineyard owners will continue to face downward pressures on grape prices even as consumer sales are increasing by modest margins. Heavy harvests from the past three years have overflowed many wineries’ tank capacities and specific varietal prices fell last year by as much as 28-29% for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

“Everywhere you looked around California last year, there were grapes left on the ground,” wine broker Marc Cuneo, of Turrentine Brokerage, told about 700 growers and industry representatives at this year’s Dollars & Sense annual meeting, held Jan. 16 by Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Vintners at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

Cuneo and his partner Brian Clements reminded the growers that wine and grape market cycles of “buyers” and “sellers” are not gone.

“They’re still here,” said Clements, “and one day we will again be talking about strong prices. We’re smart and innovation people in this wine industry. I predict we’ll be talking about higher prices again soon.”

He did caution everyone about lessons learned in the era of vineyard expansion of the 1990s.

“Don’t plant a new vineyard without a (crop) contract,” he said.

Most other portions of the half-day presentations and trade show offered much more positive news on the progress of meeting industry-wide sustainability measures, supporting farm workers and others during the Kincade wildfire recovery and with such success stories as Sonoma County being named the Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

“There’s lots of good news out there,” said Danny Brager, a beverage and consumer analyst for Nielsen. He said higher priced premium wines continue to sell well and there are other bright spots in the wine market in sales of rosé and the expanding acceptance of wine in cans.

Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse welcomed a new decade by declaring, “there’s lots of opportunities out there” and then proceeded to list the organization’s many accomplishments from 2019. She emphasized that the Winegrowers and Vintners expanded their leadership roles in Sonoma County on issues such as affordable housing for agricultural workers, addressing climate change, continuing national and global marketing of Sonoma County wines and supporting many local nonprofits and community efforts.

“Our secret sauce is our farmers and how much they love their land,” said Kruse.

She inventoried the progress made on the Winegrowers’ pledge made in 2014 to become the nation’s first 100% certified sustainable wine region which it accomplished last year. Winegrowers also joined a partnership with the California Land Stewardship Institute to work on best practices to lower greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration in farming practices. Sonoma County Winegrowers has 1,800 members who farm almost 60,000 acres of vineyards, with 85% being family-owned and just under half of the total being 20 acres or less.

Michael Haney, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners, touted the Vintners’ nonprofit foundation that awarded $2.5 million to local charities and community groups from proceeds raised at its Barrel Auction, Taste of Sonoma and Sonoma County Wine Month events last year.

“While we focus on spreading the global message of our phenomenal wines,” Haney told the audience, “we also are focused on making Sonoma County one of the world’s most beautiful places to live, work and thrive.”

The Vintners and Winegrowers, hosting the Dollars & Sense event jointly for the first time, also shared the awarding of the annual Nick Frey Community Contributions Award, named after the retired Winegrowers executive director. Jackson Family Wines and Francis Ford Coppola Winery were honored for their leadership and examples in advancing sustainable farming and winemaking practices. Katie Jackson, of Jackson Family Wines, thanked the organization while emphasizing that the local agricultural community is the “lifeblood” of the county.

Also highlighted at the event was Corazón Healdsburg as a partner in working with hundreds of farmworker families and individuals. Corazón Executive Director Ariel Kelley thanked the Vintners and Winegrowers for their support of Corazón’s educational, childcare and wildfire recovery efforts.

Separately, the Winegrowers nonprofit foundation last year awarded $700,000 in food, housing and clothing vouchers to 1,003 farmworkers and their families.

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