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Mendo’s Wine Grape Production Is Tanking

Last March (2020) we reported that grape production in Mendocino County was way down for 2019 compared to 2018, according to the “latest” crop report from the Ag Department. We put “latest” in quotes because in typical Mendocino timing, we’re only now getting the 2019 crop report in March of 2021, 15 months after the end of 2019.

No reason is offered for the unusually tardy issuance of the report. 

The significant grape production decrease from 2018 to 2019 is about 17-20% (depending on how you calculate it). Mendo’s crop report authors do not offer any explanation for the large drop, but Sonoma County’s crop report for the same year says the drop in grape production in SoCo was attributable to a record breaking “bumper crop” in 2018.

Over the years conventional news articles have also blamed wildfires and related smoke damage, but it’s hard to connect the fires in one year to the grape production in the next, much less the wine it may later become.

It’s also hard to connect the per-ton price grapes draw year over year as tonnage goes up or down or as wildfire damage is accounted for. 

Mendo grapes sold for an average of nearly $1700 per ton in both 2018 and 2019 compared to an average of almost $2900 per ton in Sonoma County. As usual, the most valuable varietal is pinot noir at almost $4,000 per ton in Sonoma County and $3,200 per ton in Mendo, while most acreage is planted in chardonnay. 

Mendo has about 16,500 acres in grapes compared to over 57,000 acres in Sonoma County. 

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The collapse of the marijuana economy, both legal and illegal, is due to a glut of product, legalization, the drought, lack of labor and other traditional ag factors. Marijuana gets a lot of attention these days, but the County’s biggest (legal) ag crop, wine grapes, is quietly collapsing too. 

According to recent Mendocino County crop reports:

In 2017 the grape crop was valued at $120 million. 

In 2018 grapes were valued at $138 million. (Described as a “bumper crop year.”)

In 2019 grapes dropped to $114 million crop value.

In 2020 grapes only produced a $82 million crop value — according to Mendocino County’s just-released 2020 ag crop report.

The official numbers for 2021 are not yet in, of course. But anecdotal reports show another big drop in tonnage is likely. Nobody’s guessing what the price per ton will be for 2021, although some grape growers are saying 2021 was a “good year” in that the crop is expected to make good wine.

While grape acreage in Mendocino County remained at about 16,500 acres in 2020, the total tonnage of grapes dropped from almost 68,000 tons to about 55,000 tons — and that (2020) was pre-drought, as the value of the crop dropped from an average of about $1700 per ton to about $1500 per ton. 

The total value of grapes sold in Mendocino County dropped again from about $114 million in 2019 to $82 million in 2020, a drop off of almost 30%. A larger drop off in value is expected for 2021, but given the lag time in releasing annual crop reports we won’t know the full extent of the drop for another year. 

An August 2021 report in the North Bay Business Journal (an offshoot of the Press Democrat) by reporter Jeff Quackenbush was entitled, “Drought, frost, heat blamed for light Mendocino County wine grape crop.”

In that article Quackenbush quotes several inland Mendocino growers about their diminishing crops. 

“Some are talking about it being down 15% to 20%, with some varieties off 30% to 40% and some about normal,” said Bill Pauli, general partner of custom vintner Yokayo Wine Company and a partner in his affiliated growing company Pauli Ranch.” … Yields so far for that vineyard are off by 30% to 45% from multi-year averages. 

Quackenbush: “Mendocino County pinot noir seems most affected at this point, down as much as 40%.” (Pinot noir is the highest priced winegrape varietal.)

Quackenbush: “Redwood Valley Vineyards Proprietor Martha Barra expects the yields to be 25% to 30% below average for certain varieties, the second year in a row in which the crop volume was down by over 20% on the three vineyards the family owns and operates.”

Jake Fetzer at Masut Wines outside of Willits: “Right now, it’s looking like yields [for 2021] are off by about 20%.”

These grape growers are talking about a drought related production drop of between 20-40% or more from an already low year.

The economic implications of such a dramatic reduction in Mendo’s primary agricultural sector, are significant. 

But as far as we can tell, only a few of the affected grape growers are paying attention. 

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