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Daniel Voit has a theory on why Santa Rosa's Blentech Corp. is exporting more of its custom-made industrial cookers and mixers that process everything from jams to burrito fillings.

"In modern society, people don't have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen," said Voit, general manager of the 57-worker company, which sells about 40 percent of its products overseas. "Wherever that trend is taking hold, our equipment is in demand."

Blentech, with sales on pace to reach a record $12 million this year, is one of numerous Sonoma County manufacturers who are experiencing growth in international sales.

Exports from Sonoma County companies rose 14 percent last year to $1.1 billion, according to a new report from the U.S. Commerce Department. It was the second straight year of double-digit increases and the highest sales total in the seven years the government has tracked county exports by ZIP code.

The report highlighted a surge in machinery manufacturing exports, which soared 62 percent last year to $199 million. Chemical manufacturing exports also saw a big increase, jumping 24 percent to $116 million.

The data also showed continued strength in the county's trade with Asia and with North American Free Trade Agreement partners Canada and Mexico.

In 2008, the European Union was the biggest international buyer of Sonoma County products. But during the next two years, such exports plunged. The continent has continued to struggle with a double-dip recession and ongoing worries about the debt of Greece and other countries there.

The good news is that the county's exports to Europe rose last year, increasing 11 percent to $178 million. But that total still remained less than half the amount of three years earlier, when exports to Europe totaled nearly $406 million.

In the past two years, Asia has become the county's biggest export market. Sales there increased by 16 percent last year to $483 million.

The NAFTA countries ranked second with exports up 9 percent to $271 million.

Eduardo Martinez, a senior economist who studies the county for Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa., said exports are "leading the U.S. recovery." The increase in the county's exports is due largely to the growing economies in Asia and Canada.

"Santa Rosa is obviously benefitting from California's Pacific Rim profile," Martinez said.

The exports provide a significant benefit to the local economy, business leaders said.

"When they export their goods, they're importing money," said Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

International trade also supports higher-paid county jobs requiring skills, knowledge and creativity.

"We are not competing on your basic commodity items," said Elizabeth Krauth, director of the North Bay office of the U.S. Commercial Service, part of the Commerce Department. "We're competing on specialty items and we're competing on the strengths of our intellectual property."

The commerce data are considered a rough gauge of export activity. The government is unable to assign all transactions to a geographic location, due to occasional missing ZIP codes, and the area credited for an export may not be the location of its production facility but a company headquarters far away.

Even so, experts and business leaders said the gains presented in the report fit with what is happening in the county and region.

"This is a legitimate trend," said Dick Herman, president of 101 MFG, an alliance of manufacturing executives in Northern California. Moreover, he said, the export data points to the region's growing manufacturing sector.

"The Northern California region is becoming the toolbox or the toolshed for the high-tech center of the world, which is Silicon Valley," Herman said.

Company officials also speak of gains in international business.

At Petaluma laser developer Raydiance, exports are up 50 percent to date this year.

"It looks like it was driven by expansion into new markets," said Steven P. Sapers, vice president of operations.

About 60 percent of Raydiance sales are outside the United States. The company of 60 workers makes laser systems used to micromachine precision parts, such as fuel injectors in car engines and tiny stents that open arteries in the human body.

Growth in the demand for crystals used for light-emitting diodes in LED lighting and monitors has boosted exports for Santa Rosa's Thermal Technology. About 70 percent of the company's computer-controlled furnaces and other thermal processing systems are sold abroad — including its crystal growth equipment. The Pacific Rim is by far the biggest region for sales.

"I believe this momentum will continue," said Patty Mede, marketing manager for the 65-employee company.

Xandex Inc., a Petaluma-based manufacturer of semiconductor testing equipment, saw such sales decline about 25 percent from 2007 to 2011, said Shaheen Shamsavari, the company's business development manager. Sales fell during a consolidation among the companies that buy Xandex "inkers," which make tiny marks on defective parts on integrated circuits.

The company, which has 80 employees, is predicting sales of testing products will increase 5 percent this year.

"It will be better than last year," said Shamsavari, who noted the company has expanded into sales of solar products and systems.

About a year ago, Calix, a Petaluma networking equipment maker, launched an effort to expand its international business, which makes up about 6 percent of sales. The company last month announced a deal with Swedish technology giant Ericsson that will make Calix its preferred supplier of fiber-optic access technology used to connect homes and business to broadband networks.

The company, which has

660 employees, estimates that it has yet to serve more than 85 percent of the world telecommunications market, said David H. Allen, Calix's treasurer and director of investor relations.

"It's a huge opportunity," Allen said.

For Sonoma County's $2 billion wine industry, both Asia and Canada still hold plenty of promise, said Linsey Gallagher, director of international marketing for the San Francisco-based Wine Institute.

In Europe, margins are tight because most wine sells for less than $4 a bottle, Gallagher said.

"There's a lot of time and energy being devoted to Canada and China" by U.S. wine companies due to both higher margins and the opportunity to increase sales, she said.

Business leaders said the development under way in Asia and elsewhere will continue, and they want to continue their push to increase exports. The county Economic Development Board is planning an international trade workshop in the spring.

"The world as a group over time is getting richer," said Ben Stone, the development board's executive director. "And that's good news for Sonoma County."

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)

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