Cool California weather keeps winemakers waiting

CALISTOGA, Calif Wed Oct 19, 2011 5:42am EDT

Zinfandel grapes grow in a Napa Valley, California vineyard that supplies grapes to Frank Family Vineyards October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Lisa Baertlein

Zinfandel grapes grow in a Napa Valley, California vineyard that supplies grapes to Frank Family Vineyards October 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lisa Baertlein

CALISTOGA, Calif (Reuters) - Hollywood executive and winery owner Frank Rich says the movie and wine businesses have plenty in common -- especially as this year's late California harvest has winemakers waiting in the wings for grapes to ripen.

Both of California's famed industries require big up-front investments, significant sales and marketing budgets, and are heavily dependent on star power -- whether from a smouldering starlet or a complex Cabernet Sauvignon grape.

"The difference is that grapes don't talk back. Although, sometimes they show up late -- as we're seeing this year," said the former Walt Disney Studios president and current owner of Frank Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, which sells wine for $30 a bottle and more.

Growers around the Golden State are harvesting grapes later than usual this year. The take is anticipated to be smaller than normal, due to heavy spring rains and the second summer in a row of cooler-than-normal temperatures.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is forecasting 2011 wine grape production of 3.30 million tons, down 9 percent from 3.63 million tons in 2010.

California's unusually mild 2011 weather is expected to have intensified flavours in surviving grapes, which should result in higher quality.

So far, California's harvest of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc all have been below long-term average yields per acre, said Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Brokerage, which specializes in bulk wine and grape sales.

The shortfall may put upward pressure on prices, particularly for wines in the $2 to $4 bottle range, he said.

After paying more for grapes, producers of those wines "are going to have less of a desire to sell it at that price," Fredricks said.

Rich, who now is launching TheOnlineNetwork.com and is an executive producer on shows like USA Network's "Royal Pains", says his yields so far have been mixed.

The Chardonnay harvest has been light, but the winery has more Sangiovese than ever before, said Rich.

Despite the smaller harvest, Frank Family Vineyards' winemaker Todd Graff said he is increasing production 50 percent to 60,000 cases to meet what he sees as rising demand.

Graff, who tends three vineyards totaling more than 260 acres around Napa Valley, plans to get there by buying grapes from other growers.

"This year we plan to grow (production) a lot, even with the lighter crop," said Graff, who recently boosted his own Hollywood credentials when he helped "Royal Pains" writers find winery equipment that could be used by the show's star -- a so-called "medical MacGyver" -- to save lives. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein)

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