Wholesale prices for Sonoma County wines that he buys have increased 10 to 15 percent, he said. Local red wines, especially pinot noir, have changed the most, while chardonnay and sauvignon blanc have seen more modest increases.
"It's very, very justified," Williams said. "You can't run on fumes. And really I think wineries could not sustain going the way they were in the last couple of years, and not raise prices."
During the recession, flash websites like invino.com and winestilsoldout.com emerged to help wineries move inventory, offering discounts of 35 or 40 percent off suggested retail prices.
"In 2009, when everyone was losing their homes and houses were going under water, affordable luxuries were no longer $40 or $50 bottles of wine," said Tony Westfall, CEO of Good Company Wines, which owns invino.com. The website, based in Sonoma, was launched in 2010. "Affordable luxuries became a $10 or $20 bottle of wine."
Even so, Westfall was pleasantly surprised to sell twice as many bottles as he expected of a $99.99 Napa cabernet sauvignon during a recent sale. And he expects wineries to be able to sell more of their stock at the prices they desire, he said.
"I've seen some price increases on some of the cult brands out of Napa, where they had taken the price down during the recession," Westfall said.
Wines sold at Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa also have been increasing in price, said Ben Pearson, wine buyer. A chardonnay that he sold last year for $14.99 a bottle will probably go up $1 in price, while a cabernet sauvignon that fetched $25 last year will probably be bumped up to $27, he said.
"Not everyone's doing it, but I'm definitely seeing it more than I did in the last couple of years," Pearson said. "There's no question that I'm seeing it from the larger brands. And when the larger brands do it, smaller ones follow."
Finding the right price is a precarious balancing act. If a bottle is marked too high, consumers may turn to one of many less expensive brands. And retailers or distributors may balk at higher prices, fearing sluggish sales.
On the other hand, if the price is too low, wineries with smaller inventories could sell out of a varietal and end up losing valuable shelf space in the stores.
Distributors also grow concerned about losing volume if a winery increases prices, Fredrikson said.
"Nobody likes price increases in the trade, but at some point you have to take them, because costs are going up," Fredrikson said.
Balletto Vineyards and Winery, which owns 600 acres in the Russian River Valley and makes 15,000 cases of wine annually, has taken modest price increases in its estate wines, said John Balletto, president.
"Certain varieties like pinot noir are in huge demand, because there's just not a lot of supply," Balletto said. "The bulk supply is very low, and the cased goods inventory is really low. So those varieties are moving at a very fast rate."
The winery has been able to keep prices relatively steady through the recession and changes in the grape market, since it controls its grape supply by sourcing from its own vineyards. But labor costs and inflation are adding to the cost of inputs.
His wines appear on menus in more than 150 restaurants in Sonoma, Napa, Marin and San Francisco, he said. Agreeing to a price for a glass of wine is a balancing act.
"Once you do maintain those markets and those placements, you want to fight hard to keep those," Balletto said. "It is difficult. Sometimes you do lose shelf space, and you lose a spot on a menu if you raise your price above a certain point."
Other local companies like Rodney Strong raised prices on sauvignon blanc after the 2011 crop was pummeled by harsh weather, Williams said.
Imports from countries with favorable exchange rates also could become more attractive to consumers who don't want to pay more. The value of U.S. wine imports surged 14 percent last year, Moody's reported.
"But even if prices may be up, there's still plenty of wine available for everyday consumption," Fredrikson said. "And 'Two Buck Chuck' is still $1.99 at Trader Joe's."
About 80 percent of California wines sell for less than $10 per bottle, he said.
Consumer spending has returned to pre-recession levels, and economists expect consumption to improve in the near term, meaning wineries are less likely to sell high-end wines at steep discounts, according to the Moody's report.
"There were a lot of wineries out there that had wines in the $50 range, and that market has curtailed excessively. But as the economy rebounds, the desire for those wines is kind of rekindling," Williams said. "And if the economy continues to improve as we've seen, then the desire will still be there."
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