The sharp drop is the result of several factors: a yield lower than normal for 2020, devastating wildfires that have swept across the state, damaging vines and spoiling fruit, and a pandemic that has caused consumers to buy cheaper wine.
Overall, we think the harvest will be about 10-15% lower (before the fires), says Jeff Bitter, president of Union Vineyards. But the account of the scattering is really a reflection of what happened because of the fires and smoke that occurred almost exclusively on the coast.
The report’s data shows that the major coastal varieties were hardest hit, especially in Napa and Sonoma counties, which were heavily impacted by two separate fires – the LNU Lightning Complex and the Glass Fire – during the harvest season.
We estimate that, even before the report, between 240 000 and 325 000 tonnes of grapes were not harvested because of the smoke. – Jeff Bitter, Allied Grape Producers…
Compared to 2019, Napa had 39% fewer bruised grapes overall. Cabernet Sauvignon, the main red grape variety in the county, was down 43%, while Zinfandel was down 47%, Merlot was down 42% and Chardonnay was down 35%.
Sonoma County crushed 36% fewer grapes in 2020. The most widely planted red variety, Pinot Noir, is down 38%, while the most important white variety, Chardonnay, is down 44%.
In 2020, 39% and 36% fewer grapes were crushed in Napa and Sonoma, respectively, than the previous year / Getty.
According to Bitter, the drops not only indicate that the fruit is damaged, but also that shoppers are rejecting potentially smoke-damaged products. We estimate that even before the report was released, between 240,000 and 325,000 tons of grapes had not been harvested as a result of the smoke, he says, noting that some growers may also have not harvested grapes for insurance reasons.
Despite the shortage of high quality coastal fruits, California grape prices have also fallen significantly. Nationally, Cabernet dropped from $1,767 to $1,231 (-30.4%), Pinot Noir from $1,880 to $1,208 (-35.8%) and Chardonnay from $939 to $828 (-11.8%).
That’s one of the biggest questions in the Crush Report, and it’s really hard to say what the answer is, given all the challenges of the past year, says Glenn Proctor, partner at Ciatti Global Grape and Wine Brokerage.
Proctor wonders if buyers who normally pay a high price for North Coast fruit have renegotiated because of the uncertainty over smoke stains. In addition, the great 2018 harvest has kept 105,000 tons on the vine in 2019, he says. Although there was a shortage of grapes in California in 2020, there was no need to buy replacement fruit – many growers still have old vintages in tanks or barrels.
Another issue that will affect the year’s performance? The human element.
The pandemic has changed the requirements. Consumers have started trading stocks, but they’re buying more, says Audra Cooper, partner and broker at Turrentine Brokerage. She calls the current state of California’s grape and wholesale market a transition market.
This change in buying habits has made it possible to sell older wines that were on sale in all varieties and regions on the wholesale market, albeit at lower prices than in the past when the trend was toward premiumization, she says.
There’s a problem for wineries that sell primarily through restaurants and are trying to sell their products at retail, says Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Brokerage.
The wine producers who have this capacity are now reorienting their production and including regional or even national brands or private labels in their portfolios, which are sold at consumer-friendly prices.
It remains to be seen whether the trend in wine prices will continue or whether demand will shift toward premiumization.
It’s hard to make such a prediction, Bitter said. One thing is certain: 2020 is not a year in which we can focus on anything.