Southern Oregon wine grape growers planted and picked more acres in 2008, but the yield per acre and number of tons dropped, according to figures compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Southern Oregon wine grape growers planted and picked more acres in 2008, but the yield per acre and number of tons dropped, according to figures compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The average per-ton price grew 9 percent last year.

Jackson and Josephine counties saw the number of vineyards grow to 114 from 106 in 2008, boosting the total planted acres to 1,983 from 1,911.

The number of harvested acres in the area rose to 1,562 from 1,456. Yield, however, dropped to 2.48 tons per acre from 3.06 tons in Jackson County and 2.56 tons per acre versus 3.26 in Josephine County. The number of tons crushed fell 14 percent, to 3,907 from 4,554.

"When you are talking 10 or 12 percent — or something like that — either way, it's not very dramatic," said Mark Wisnovsky of Valley View Vineyard in Ruch. "You always try to figure out what could possibly be the cause and it's always hard to pinpoint. The most common is frost. There was some disruption of the bloom in June. If it's abnormally hot, it can shrink the berries and stress the grapes more than should be."

Lower production seasons in 2001 and 2003 were followed by banner years in 2002 and 2004, said Chris Mertz, who directs the NASS office in Portland.

More important to wineries and growers is the demand side of the equation. The global economic slump has altered buying trends. Wineries customarily selling bottles for $20 to $25 are seeing a change, Wisnovsky said.

"Most people are now buying in the $15 to $18 range," Wisnovsky said. "Because a lot of wineries don't have bottles in those ranges, they're losing sales."

Wisnovsky said grapes used for wine selling at $20 to $25 per bottle have been fetching between $1,600 and $2,200 a ton.

"I think we'll be seeing prices closer to $1,000 if growers don't have long-term contracts," Wisnovsky said.

Larger growers such as Quail Run Vineyards and Del Rio have long-term contracts and won't immediately be exposed to market fluctuations.

"The issues will be with smaller growers," Wisnovsky said. "The growers with 5, 10 or 15 acres, who don't have long-term contracts."

Dick Ellis of Ellis Vineyards and Pebblestone Winery is confident that growers can avoid overproduction by thinning after the fruit sets.

"I think people are going to watch cropping levels, especially the late-ripening varietals, more closely," said Ellis, who is president of the Rogue Valley Wine Growers Association. "Personally, I'm cropping it back a little in this economic climate and I bet others will do the same."

Nonetheless, he hasn't seen much softening in the market. Some of his varietals are under long-term contract, others are year-to-year.

"I haven't seen people pulling back and they're renewing the long-term contracts," Ellis said. "I don't think it's a big deal right now; I haven't heard much desperation."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.