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Snapping up vineyards

  • Robert Nicholson of International Wine Associates had a hand in brokering a vineyard in Cloverdale to Duckhorn Wine Company for 400 acres of hillside vineyards, Saturday June 23, 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

As the wine industry heads into a projected grape shortage and grape prices continue to rise, North Coast wineries are buying up vineyards to protect their supply.

In the past few weeks, hundreds of acres of prime vineyards in Sonoma County have changed hands as wineries sought to control costs in a market where scarce grapes are fetching top dollar.

"There is a little bit of a flocking to buying land," said Robert Nicholson, principal at International Wine Associates, a winery and vineyard brokerage. "This need for vineyards, this desire for vineyards, has come up in every single conversation with principals, with multinational and privately held small business. I'd say it's the beginning of a gentle roar."

Napa-based Duckhorn Wine Co. bought a 400-acre vineyard in Alexander Valley from Artesa Vineyards & Winery in its acquisition in mid-June of the Ridgeline Vineyard property, which is planted with nearly 90 acres of cabernet sauvignon and other in-demand red varietals.

And in early June, Jackson Family Wines scooped up the 350-acre Ramal West Vineyard in the Carneros appellation.

The sales illustrate a swelling interest in vineyard properties throughout the state.

The Sonoma County grape crop has been smaller than average for the past two harvests, taking a financial toll on growers and leaving less excess wine statewide.

There has been little to no planting of new Sonoma County vineyards over the past few years, meaning a shortage could get worse as aging vines produce fewer grapes. Fewer grapes mean higher grape prices, and vineyard values have risen in step with the grapes.

For vineyard owners who were hit hard by the recession, higher land prices are a compelling reason to sell.

"Farmers have had a hard time over the past three years, and they might be looking to move on at this time because there is strength in the market," said Mark Stevens, vineyard and winery broker with Artisan Sotheby's. "I don't think it's evolved into price wars, but current market for this and near future years' crops has firmed up, resulting in strengthened vineyard values."

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