Limited production infrastructure seen stymying apples, milk sustainability
Sonoma County’s winegrape harvest last year was marked by an overage of crop yields while this year’s equally fine vintage will be remembered partly for an ill-timed outage.
Thanks to an evenly paced growing season and harvest period, the forced electric outage by PG&E during Oct. 8 and 9 had next to no big impacts on vineyard harvesting or winery processing. The rude interlude by PG&E, initiated as a wildfire prevention measure during red flag adverse weather warnings, proved just a brief diversion to a harvest year overseen from last March through this October by an unstinting Mother Nature.
The 2019 premium grape harvest followed one of the region’s wettest winters in 2018, providing abundant groundwater with a little extra rain in May during vine blossoming. The seven to eight months of growing season has been mild, uneventful with just one brief heat spike and welcomed by growers, vineyard crews and local winemakers who are declaring the picked fruit outstanding and full of desired flavors.
Near auto-pilot conditions in the vineyards profited winegrape growers with extra time to focus or fret over selling their grapes in an over-supplied and soft-price market. Though a bit lighter than previous years, the 2019 crop will mark the third near-historic bumper crop in a row.
Harvesting will continue into mid-November or heavy rains, and the total tonnage is being predicted to exceed 220,000 tons, below last year’s 275,000 tons but above 2017’s 206,000 tons. While under pressure, average grape prices including all reds and whites remain just under $3,000 per ton.
“It was a very good growing season with not a really hot summer and it (harvest) looks to be finishing very nicely,” said Tony Linegar, the county’s agricultural commissioner.
In the bad news category, Linegar predicted “quite a bit of fruit will not be picked or sold.” There’s a real glut on the market for harvested grapes and unfermented juice, said Linegar, while citing a market cycle and trend that has historically been repeated over decades.
“There’s been some low-balling out there” from would-be grape buyers,” he said.
Lots of winegrapes are still sold by multiple-year “hand shake” deals but purchasing wineries have been tightening their requirements for quality and pre-agreed yield amounts. Almost half of Sonoma County’s winegrapes are estate grown, meaning there is no middle man and the vineyards are winery-owned. This is true among the 1,800 grower members at Winegrowers of Sonoma County, a growers’ advocate and marketing coalition, that was formed in 1992 as the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association.
“There is definitely a ‘lower price pressure’ in the market,” said Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse. “There’s a little uncertainty in the marketplace.”
The glut market has some growers holding off new vineyard expansion plans and is seen as increasing activity to pull older vines for new plantings — and sometimes new varietals.
Glenn Proctor has at least three distinct views of the same grape market. He is a vineyard owner with his ancestor’s Puccioni Ranch in Dry Creek Valley where they grow grapes and make wine from vines planted in 1904. He is also the current chairperson of the Winegrowers board of directors. But his “day job” is his partnership with Ciatti & Company, a wine and grape brokerage where present and future grape orders are sold all around the world.
Just looking close to home, Proctor said he sees “a unique time” for local growers, buyers and sellers.
“There’s absolutely pressures on prices and this has been a tough year for me taking some calls from growers looking for homes for their fruit,” the Healdsburg native said.
Sonoma County growers and winery partners need “to stay on their game” and focus of producing “quality and value” to deal with the downward pressures on prices, he said.
Growers’ costs and operation margins are “getting squeezed” but Proctor said he remains “very optimistic” for the future of winegrapes and wines bearing the Sonoma County appellations. “We can’t just sell an image, we have to produce quality and value and we’ll be alright.”
Also, a mega-merger worth $1.7 billion where Gallo is seeking to buy Constellation Brands — which holds thousands of small and medium grower contracts — has added more unknowns into the market. That is because the local growers don’t know who their future contracts may be with, if anyone at all.
Winegrapes total 70% of Sonoma County’s total annual crop and ag production which also includes dairy, poultry, apples, livestock, ornamental nursery plants and feed crops. According to the official 2018 Crop Report, the county’s farm production exceeded $1 billion for the first time in history. Of that total $778 million was winegrapes, $141 million dairy, $79 million poultry and eggs, $32 million cattle, sheep and other livestock and $3.6 million in apples.
Multiple stresses for local apple crop
Besides the daily lectures farmers hear from Mother Nature and the weather, crop production can be influenced by labor supply, water needs, changing government regulations and a few new factors — the introduction of hemp and cannabis cultivation and the unknowns of climate change.
“Farmers need a predictable and streamlined process to get their products to market,” Linegar said. “We need more processing infrastructure for lots of our products like dairy, apples, livestock and poultry.”
By example, although far below historic totals, county apple growers this year could not find enough processors to turn their fruit into juice, cider, vinegar or apple sauce.
“We had a tremendous crop with our Gravensteins and other varieties,” Sebastopol grape and apple grower Joe Dutton said. “But we had challenges working with our processors. There is still fruit on the trees and falling on the ground.”
Where there was once more than a dozen apple processors in the county, only one remains, Manzana Products in Graton. Without Manzana being acquired by the France-based company Agrial/Eclorsa in 2012 there could be none.
“We know our local growers need a certain price for their apples to keep their trees in the ground” (and not convert to more grape vineyards), said Alissa Trinei, of Manzana. “We want to be all about our local growers and our local community but if we want to stay open we can’t just buy local apples.”
This year Manzana is paying $460 per ton for local apples but is importing apples from Washington State for $280 per ton (plus freight). Manzana employs 180 harvest time workers and is running double shifts. Trinei laments what the county’s apple future may look like. There are only 2,166 bearing acres of apple orchards remaining in west Sonoma County, where 50 years ago that total was 14,000 acres.
Local dairies face stiff national competition
Similar grim price and production challenges are facing the county’s dairy industry, which has moved to almost 100% organic. There are 56 licensed dairies in the county where there were once 800.
“We’re seeing lots of pressure to take out grasslands in the Petaluma Gap (north and west of Petaluma) and put in vineyards,” Linegar said.
Meanwhile large national milk producers are flooding the market with USDA organic milk that Linegar complains should be more tightly licensed.
“I have questions about their (USDA) measurements for what is organic pasture and what’s not,” he said.
He said small farmers with more expensive or smaller sized lands are failing to compete in a market that is price-fixed by federal controls.
Elsewhere Sonoma County is working hard to compete with wines on the international market. The Winegrowers group just won a $449,000 marketing grant to fund tours and tastings in key consumer markets across the country and other outreach efforts. Kruse and marketing assistant Amy Tesconi have recently completed 12 similar trips, pitching the name and brand of Sonoma County. A lot of the effort is targeting the local millennial market.
The Winegrowers group continues to advance its goal to be the first 100% certified sustainable winegrowing region on the global map and has achieved 99% progress with many of its goals involving land stewardship, workforce support, energy conservation and economic viability.
There are 62,782 acres of vineyards in the county. Chardonnay (16,451 acres), pinot noir (14,263 acres) and cabernet sauvignon (13,147 acres) remain the dominant varietals where growers tend and harvest 44 red varietals and 22 white varietals overall.
Talk now turning to hemp
Once the final harvest action is complete next month, lots of agricultural conversations likely will turn to the subject of hemp and cannabis, two crops recently legalized for cultivation in California.
The county Board of Supervisors enacted a moratorium on hemp cultivation in April 2019 and ag commissioner Linegar and others have been working on new regulations and land use guidelines for the potential new crops. Hemp is the version of marijuana that lacks the psychotropic component (THC). Hemp is grown mostly as the raw product used to produce various medical products containing cannabidiol (CBD) that can now be found on drug store shelves and local cannabis dispensaries.
“It’s a big potential alternative crop that is drawing lots of interest,” Linegar said.
The moratorium ends April 30, and without a new local ordinance, plantings will be allowed under broader federal guidelines. A county Planning Commission hearing in Santa Rosa is set for Nov. 7 and the county supervisors will hear an update and report from Linegar on Dec. 16.