Preliminary figures indicate decline in 2019 North Coast grape harvest

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The North Coast wine business and elsewhere in California should be taking action as sales slow and the supply of grapes and wine in tanks increase, according to experts at an industry conference in Santa Rosa on Thursday.

Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler told an audience of about 100 at the annual WINExpo conference and trade show that a consensus is that the threat of recession in the U.S. economy seems to be in 2022, but he sees economic growth fading the year before.

Wine consumption showed a slump before the past six U.S. recessions, Eyler said.

Recent research by fellow SSU academic Damien Wilson shows that the wine business has a big problem converting millennials and future generations to wine drinkers, something that along with a decline of primary fine-wine buyers — baby boomers — also could hit the wine business.

“So if your wine clubs are full of people between the ages of 55 and 75, and you’re just trying to grind those guys to death in the last few years, be thinking about that transition,” Eyler said.

On the supply side, the 2019 wine grape harvest is estimated to be 520,000 tons in four counties of the North Coast and 4.1 million to 4.15 million statewide, said Glenn Proctor, partner of bulk-wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co.

Official figures for the 2019 wine grape harvest won’t be released for two more months. For Wine Country, that would be a decrease from the record crush of over 588,000 tons in 2018, with tonnage up by about one-third from 2017 in Napa and Sonoma counties.

That created a startling situation in which there were few buyers looking for excess fruit during the fall harvest.

“I’m surprised at how fast we hit the wall,” Proctor said. “Some were saying they didn’t care what the price was, they weren’t buying. I thought some would come in to take advantage of the situation.”

This has led to some growers in California pulling out wine grape vines to convert the land to other crops or letting the land lie fallow. For example, he had some growers in the Lodi region pull out vines to plant almonds.

But in the North Coast, vineyards have been the biggest cash crop, so he suspects that local growers will look at underperforming vines or varieties and decide to remove vines, then go through the process of filing required erosion-control plans to provide time to gauge the direction of demand for more grapes.

Another hot topic of the conference was how to deal with “smoke taint” in wine. The problem came to the forefront with massive North Coast wildfires in the past three years. UC Davis wine researcher Anita Oberholster said that science on detecting, predicting the impact and treating affected wine is still evolving.

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