2011 wine grape crop smaller, pricier

Was 2011 a good year? Too soon to tell. But the 2011 wine grape crop is down from record volume levels in 2010 and 2009, with prices also on the rise.

The yield for 2011 was 3.3 million tons, an 11 percent drop from 2010. Reds took the biggest hit, with Napa and Sonoma Cabernets, Merlots, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs all down from last year’s levels by at least double digits.

Yield of Cabernets were off by 9.3 percent in Napa and 13.2 percent in Sonoma, with Pinot Noir yield down a significant 18.9 percent. Zinfandel production bounced back from a dismal 2010, when a heatwave “sunburned” several varieties.

An uptick in demand for bulk wines — like private labels, box wines, and “two-buck chuck” — has caused inventory levels to drop to their lowest levels in 12 years. If demand continues, shortages of Cabernet in particular could send prices even higher.

California wines could also be facing fresh challenges from European imports. Tapered-off demand for wine in Spain has led to a 7 percent to 8 percent bump in wine exports from the well-known Rioja region.

A final tally on last year’s crush is expected by next month. First tastes of the 2011 crop will have to wait a bit longer.