The top three owners of vineyard land in Sonoma County — Jackson Family Wines, E&J Gallo and Silverado Premium Properties — largely began their buying sprees in the 1980s, when vineyards cost half the price of what they sell for today.
Their demand for premium grapes would help drive up land prices as they targeted top vineyards and undeveloped land to plant new vines.
Today, the three companies own about 8,800 acres planted to grapes, according to a Press Democrat analysis of county property tax records. The vineyards, buildings and equipment on that land have an assessed value of $436 million, although the actual market value is likely far higher.
Their vision of the future — and their access to capital — drove an expansion that has helped turn Sonoma County into a global brand.
The county's largest vineyard owner, Jackson Family Wines, was a fraction of its current size when founder Jess Jackson set off on a vineyard buying spree in the mid-1980s. At the time, his flagship brand, Kendall-Jackson, was selling about 54,000 cases of wine a year — about 1 percent of what it sells today, said Jon Fredrikson, a longtime wine industry analyst and consultant.
Jackson assembled a team, including Fredrikson, that sent a mass mailing to large vineyard owners in Sonoma County asking whether they'd like to sell their properties.
"At one point — this is crazy — I wrote to every vineyard owner that owned more than 100 acres in Sonoma County, and we had a tremendous number that came back," Fredrikson recalled.
"We became so active that we were kind of like a captive agent for Jess, just finding properties, and he had a whole organization of people that were constantly reviewing deals and buying, buying, buying. The prices were right, and he was able to get financing, and Kendall-Jackson was growing. And it took a lot of guts to do that, because the '80s were rough times."
Jess Jackson, who led Jackson Family Wines with his wife, Barbara Banke, until his death in 2011, fashioned a strategy that would leave his company with 3,230 acres of planted vineyard land in Sonoma County today. His vineyards can be found throughout the Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Bennett Valley and more.
Jackson loved to plant on hillsides, and the company continues to pursue those properties. Its recent acquisitions have been at elevations as high as 2,000 to 2,500 feet, said Hugh Reimers, chief operating officer for Jackson Family Wines.
"We definitely like mountains, and Barbara is following on with that philosophy," Reimers said.
Aside from a brief interview with Reimers, Jackson Family Wines declined repeated requests for interviews for this story.
E&J Gallo Winery, which owns about 3,170 planted acres in Sonoma County, began buying grapes here nearly 80 years ago to funnel into its wine production based in Modesto. Grape growers appreciated Gallo as a major buyer, but often bristled at the low prices the company offered for grapes.
"Ernest (Gallo) himself was reluctant, really didn't see the growth in premium wines the way Jess did," Fredrikson said. "So it was a slower start. And then as opportunities arose, they bought more vineyards."
The company planted roots in Sonoma County in 1977 when it purchased Frei Brothers Winery and its 200 acres of land, followed by acquisitions of apple orchards and ranches that it converted to vineyards in the 1980s.