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Early central crop looks good - prices do not

Steve Thompson can only wish that the market outlook would be as good as the crop looks on his 32-acre Coyote Moon Vineyard near Paso Robles, Calif.

Thompson’s varietal mix — Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino — is off to a promising start. “The vines look great,” he says. “They have a lot of small flowers and clusters and the leaves are coming out really well. Things look a little nicer than last year.”

Unlike last season, the vines escaped freezing spring temperatures, and soil moisture levels are up significantly this year. He has recorded a 17 inches of rain so far, 11 inches more than the vines received all last year. Thompson didn’t start running water through his drip lines this year until the second week of May, eight weeks later than in 2009.

Now, he’s preparing for the expected arrival any day of the typical lone pest issue, leaf hoppers. So far, they haven’t appeared.

He’s concerned, however, about a new pest that is sweeping the state — the European Grapevine Moth (EGVM), which has been found from Mendocino County on the north to Fresno County to the south.

“So far, it hasn’t shown up here in the Paso Robles area, and we don’t know if it will,” Thompson says. “But, it’s a huge concern for us; it can destroy a crop.”

Another ominous threat is the depressed market for Central Coast varietals. Thompson was able to sell all of his 2009 production — but only at prices that dropped as much as 40 percent from bud break to harvest. That price collapse wiped out profits.

“I’m anticipating the same thing this year,” he says. “Everyone is really nervous right now. The wineries aren’t buying as many grapes as they were two years ago.”

Several local wineries have closed recently. One declared bankruptcy after taking delivery of some of Thompson’s grapes two years ago. “I just picked up the (bulk) wine made from them, and now I have to try to sell it,” he says.

What’s more, a small winery that had been taking Thompson’s grapes stopped buying them last year after it was purchased by a large corporation.

In response to the dim market prospects, Thompson is trying to cut costs. One way is by reducing tractor passes. Last year he had mowed his vineyard a half dozen times by mid-May. This year he has mowed twice, and that will be it.

He’s signed contracts to sell some of his 2010 grapes and is trying to line up more sales. “I grow good quality grapes,” says Thompson. “It’s a matter of finding the right buyer — but, no one is giving any indication of when they might start buying.”

He’s reluctant to crush his own grapes and try the bulk wine market, as some growers in his area did last year. “I tried it once and it worked out,” Thompson says. “But, since I didn’t get paid for quite a while after harvesting the grapes, cash flow was a problem.”

Like many grower trying to hedge grape sales, Thompson and his twin brother, Stu, started a small winery. The first bottles bearing the Twin Coyotes Winery label went on sale this year. Their wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah and Vermentino, which won best of class at the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and are available at and at

TAGS: Grapes
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