For two centuries, farmers have worked the vineyards in Sonoma County, blending soil, sunshine, science and sweat to produce grapes that are used to create some of the world's top wines.
Today, there are 1,500 farmers who grow the county's signature crop, selling their fruit to 550 local wineries or crushing it themselves to transform the juice into wines that are sold around the globe.
But increasingly, the county's largest wineries, together with a small group of big growers, are taking control of the vineyards and the $400 million crop they yield each fall.
The top five vineyard owners in Sonoma County control nearly a fifth of the county's grape supply, according to an analysis by The Press Democrat of county property tax records. The vineyards and winery assets on that land have an assessed value of more than a half-billion dollars, although the actual market value is likely much higher.
The two largest players, perennial rivals Jackson Family Wines and E&J Gallo, are locked in a virtual tie. Each owns about 3,200 acres, with Jackson Family Wines ahead by a mere 61 acres, including properties owned by affiliated companies, executives and family members. The vineyards, buildings and equipment on Jackson Family Wines' land are valued at $251 million on county tax rolls, and Gallo's is valued at $105 million, according to an analysis of county records.
Silverado Premium Properties, a Napa vineyard investment firm, is in third place, with nearly 2,400 acres of vineyards valued at $80 million, according to an analysis of county records.
The Sangiacomo family, a longtime grape-growing family in Sonoma, and Ferrari-Carano winery west of Healdsburg round out the top five. The two own a combined 2,300 acres of planted vineyards with an assessed value of $138 million.
In a region where much of the potential vineyard land has been planted, and what remains is considered ill-suited for vineyards or too environmentally sensitive to develop, these players have emerged as a dominant force in shaping the direction of the industry.
The leaders behind these companies have pioneered new growing regions and shaped the boundaries of wine appellations, a valuable marketing tool for growers and wineries. They impact what other wineries pay for grapes and the land on which they're grown. And they have contributed research on sustainability, even while reshaping the landscape and accelerating the move toward machine harvesting.
They ended up on top after a planting spree in the 1990s that more than doubled the vineyard acreage in Sonoma County to more than 60,000 acres, an expansion that altered the look and feel of the region while fueling the growth of an industry that has made Sonoma into a global brand.
Rising land values
Sonoma County long has been known as a place where grapes are grown primarily by independent farmers, not the wineries whose names are on the bottle. Two-thirds of the vineyards in the county are owned by independent growers, and about a third are owned by wineries, according to industry experts. By contrast, wineries dominate the vineyard landscape in neighboring Napa County, owning an estimated two-thirds of the land while independent growers there hold the other third.
"I think there's a perception that Sonoma County has these big growers and big wineries and that's what dominates the landscape, but that would be a misperception," said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group funded by local growers. "The bulk of the vineyards are owned by families, a lot of them multigenerational. It's very much still a small-grower environment."