On the Grapevine: On the latest news from the world of wine.

High production could cause problems in California

The first batch of 2009’s North Coast pinot noir vintage left the vines and headed for the vats in a vineyard in California last month. A relatively cool summer has delayed the harvest by a week, but not necessarily reduced production, with wine producers expecting a good-sized crop.

Wineries are dealing with a depressed market for high end wines at the moment, thus an abundance of fresh grapes means low prices, along with an abundance of ready wine, possibly leaving growers and producers strapped for cash in the midst of a credit crunch.

The same problems go for farmers in general.

Prices for livestock raised by young farmers were significantly lower than last year, and across the country, Americans are cutting back on purchasing organic produce (of which California is the leading producer.) The early harvest numbers from California’s Hunter Vineyards are being closely watched this year because the grape market is in such a precarious state. After hitting record prices last year, the recession has sent grape prices sliding 30 percent or more this year.

Slow sales of wines over $20 have caused inventories to back up at most North Coast wineries, making them hesitant to buy any more grapes than they absolutely have to. The result is anxious growers with fruit ripening on the vine and few wineries lining up to buy the grapes.

Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said he expects an average crop of around 200,000 tons for Sonoma County. That would be up 18 percent from last year’s anemic crop of 169,000 tons, but well short of the 216,000 ton bumper crop that walloped the industry in 2005.