Much of California’s 2024 wine harvest could go to waste


Many California vineyards could be abandoned this harvest as growers struggle to sell their grapes. 

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

In late 2020, following a particularly severe fire season, many California vineyards were a sobering sight. They’d become temporary grape graveyards, where clusters — dried-up and wrinkly like prunes — clung to leafless vines or littered the frosty ground. Tainted by smoke, the grapes were ruined before wineries could harvest them and thus abandoned. 

This year, many vineyards face a similar fate, though not because of smoke. While an early start to fire season is cause for concern, there’s a more pressing issue: Growers can’t sell their grapes. 

This is the case for D’Ambrosio Vineyards in Napa, which has about 13 acres of grapes to sell between its two vineyards. For the first time in over 30 years, the company hasn’t sold a single ton of fruit to wineries, and the start of harvest is about a month away. One winery that’s bought fruit from D’Ambrosio for about five years just canceled its contracts. “They were my biggest buyers, and talking to everyone in (Napa Valley), we’re all in the same boat,” said Gloria Limon-Valentine, D’Ambrosio’s operations manager. “We’ve had to lower our price and offer payment plans to try to sell our fruit.”

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Limon-Valentine originally listed Cabernet Sauvignon grapes at $9,000 a ton, which many wineries would use for a roughly $90 bottle of wine, but has dropped it to $8,000 and anticipates having to lower it more. If the vineyards don’t get any buyers, she estimates it will be a half-a-million-dollar loss.

Grapes that don't sell could likely be left to shrivel up on the vine. 

Grapes that don’t sell could likely be left to shrivel up on the vine. 

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

D’Ambrosio’s struggle is reflected in a report released this week from Wine Business, which revealed that June grape sale listings on its classifieds website jumped 93% from June 2023 and are up 113% year-to-date. For five months in 2024, grape listings have hit a five-year record high. Wineries aren’t renewing grape contracts, and it’s placing growers in a “pretty hairy situation,” said Jeff Bitter, president of Allied Grape Growers, a cooperative that represents 400 growers in California. Growers are forced to continue investing money into farming a crop that might end up on the ground. 

This crisis comes when the entire wine industry is in turmoil. Global wine consumption is declining, and growers are ripping out their vineyards en masse due to a yearslong oversupply. Bitter has urged the California wine industry to remove 50,000 acres of grapevines statewide to correct the oversupply issue; thus far, he estimates about 30,000 acres have been removed this year.

Randy Heinzen, owner of Pro Vineyard Professional Services, a Central Coast vineyard management company, said he “can’t recall a year when (grape sales have) been this quiet for this long.” Typically, buying activity increases throughout the spring, but he said it’s been “crickets.”

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Growers have faced downturns before, but Natalie Collins, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, feels this one is the worst yet because “a whole bunch of separate issues have all come to a head at once.” These issues include “uncertainty” in demand and sluggish wine sales; increased consolidation in the wine industry; an influx of cheap imports in the U.S. bulk wine market; a backlog of bulk wine from previous vintages; and increased farming costs. 

There's a yearslong oversupply of grapes in California, so growers are ripping out their vines en masse. 

There’s a yearslong oversupply of grapes in California, so growers are ripping out their vines en masse. 

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The industry’s struggles have driven many wineries to take a cautious approach this year and produce less wine than usual. “They don’t know what their sales are going to look like,” said Collins, “and it’s really leaving grape growers out on the line by themselves.”

Unsold grapes leave growers with only a few options, and none is ideal. Crop insurance doesn’t cover grapes that simply didn’t sell (as opposed to grapes that were damaged or destroyed from events like wildfire) and Collins predicts that many growers will choose to cut their losses and leave the grapes on the vine or drop them to the ground. Some growers, she said, have already made the difficult decision to cease farming for the year. 

Historically, growers have tended to crush any leftover or rejected grapes and make wine themselves, which can later be sold on the bulk wine market. But bulk wine brings in a significantly smaller profit than grapes sold to wineries, especially after accounting for the grower’s own production costs. That market is oversaturated, too; according to Wine Business, bulk wine listings are already up 33% year-over-year. “There’s incredible volume, if not historic volume in (the bulk market) right now,” said Heinzen. “I don’t think that’s going to play a large part in solving this.”

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In the past, growers could also sell their grapes to secondary markets for distillate or grape juice concentrate, but those are mostly nonexistent now, according to Bitter. “There’s not a safety net in the marketplace,” he said.  

Many wineries are producing less wine this year and choosing not to renew their contracts with growers. 

Many wineries are producing less wine this year and choosing not to renew their contracts with growers. 

John Storey/Special to the Chronicle

The grape market’s slump is good news for wineries looking to buy more fruit. Vintners can “cherry pick” through the available vineyards, said Bitter, and will likely snag a deal. For consumers, it could mean higher-quality wines at potentially lower prices — if wineries are willing to pass on their savings to customers. 

Yet this good fortune for wineries could quickly sour, said Collins, who believes that after this year, many growers will rip out their vines with no intention of replanting. The current oversupply could turn into a shortage. “Many growers have lost confidence in winery buyers and the partnerships that were there in years past,” she said. “I do fear that decisions made today are going to have long-term rippling effects on the entire California wine industry.”

Fess Parker's Los Olivos estate in Santa Barbara County.
Hundred Acre founder Jayson Woodbridge has purchased part of Madrigal Family Winery for his Fortunate Son brand.

Heinzen, however, remains optimistic that most growers will stay committed, as they’re already well accustomed to weathering Mother Nature’s curveballs. “It’s going to be a fantastic harvest for the birds,” he said.

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“You’re going to have a lot of fat starlings.”

Reach Jess Lander: jess.lander@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @jesslander


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