Between unpredictable weather and crews spaced six feet apart or more among the vines, Napa Valley’s growing season is off to an unconventional start.
The beginning of this year gave way to a mild, dry winter that brought with it early bud break, spring frost warnings and now unseasonably persistent rain in mid-May. That said, grape growers — like all farmers — well know there is no such thing as an “average” growing season, according to Trefethen Family Vineyards CEO Jon Ruel.
“Every winter Mother Nature shuffles the deck and deals the cards, and we play the hand,” Ruel said. The weather has been variable, he acknowledged, though vines have continued to grow well even through late season rain.
“This year’s looks like a decent crop,” Ruel said. “It’s been grounding to be out there: the grapes are growing, they’re happy, they don’t know anything about the COVID-19 situation.”
The grape market, however, has more so reacted to the pandemic. Experts have predicted a softening as sales-by-volume decrease in the wake of tasting room and restaurant shut downs; the price of grapes could decline considerably.
The industry as of 2019 was already grappling with a glut market due an oversupply and a decline in consumer demand for the first time in half a century. The spot market for grapes (where fruit is purchased literally on the spot) and the bulk market for wine could be flooded with inventory if the dynamic between supply and demand does not change, experts say.
But most of Napa Valley’s growers have their crops already under contract, which should shield them from the immediate impact of market deflation, according to Tres Goetting, winemaker for Robert Biale Vineyards. The winery – which has 35 acres planted to vine – discussed cutting back on production, but plans to honor its existing contracts.
“We have these very specific, tight relationships with these growers, so we’re locked in,” Goetting said.
Contracts dictate volume of grapes to be purchased and price to be paid for them, essentially preserving pre-pandemic market conditions.
The winery’s own vineyard blocks are progressing nicely, according to Goetting. The dry winter was a scare for growers, he said – Goetting’s own thoughts went immediately toward an early on-set to fire season – and he hasn’t found late-season rain disruptive. The last week or so has prompted “serious shoot growth” from vines on the Biale property, he said, and a block of Sangiovese has just begun to bloom.
Even with May’s rain, Napa Valley’s rainfall levels are at about 50% of average for the season, Goetting said. Dry years can place stress on vines and ultimately lower crop yield: that was the case in 2015 for Heibel Ranch Vineyards amid California’s state-wide drought, according to owner Trent Ghiringelli. His two-acre property in Pope Valley yielded just three tons that year; he was watching rain fall closely through this season’s dry winter.
“The rain that we’ve had the last few days will actually be nice,” Ghiringelli said, noting his vine blocks rest on rock shelf where soil doesn’t retain much moisture.
Heibel Ranch Vineyards, at less than 300 cases annually, is one of the valley’s smallest estate producers. As a group, Ghiringhelli said, smaller producers and wineries could find themselves particularly vulnerable to market volatility, especially if they’re trying to grow their production without a contract.
“Producing Napa Cabernet is a multi-year cycle; you produce for a couple of years out,” he said of Heibel Ranch Vineyards’ principle crop, noting that waves of oversupply from larger producers could crash over the heads of smaller growers. “For the little guys – it’s challenging. They might not have an outlet to sell their wine or grapes, and basically all the vehicles of commerce are screeching to a halt.”
Growers whose fruit is not under contract will likely hurt the most, according to Goetting.
“It’s going to depend on the individual situation, but the ones that can cut back are going to cut back, and that’ll impact things all the way down the line from biggest to smallest (producers),” he said. He plans to cut down production for his own 500-case label.
Ruel pointed to the importance of long-term contracts for grapes: they should give growers “the confidence to plant” and allow them to weather market ups and downs, he said. Most of Trefethen’s grapes are either used for their own labels or under contract, according to Ruel, who said he likely would not look to sell any excess fruit the vineyards produce.
“That said, I would not go as far as to make predictions about grapes left unsold – it’s way too soon,” Ruel added. “Harvest is months away, and as we get more clarity on the virus situation it’ll lend more clarify to the grape and bulk wine market.”