Vineyard acreage declined slightly across much of the North Coast in 2015 for the second consecutive year, with dips in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties offset by robust growth in Lake County, according to figures released Thursday.
Overall, the amount of land devoted to vineyards in the four counties remained virtually unchanged in 2015 at 131,869 acres, a decline of just 153 acres, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
But there were significant differences between the counties. The highest-priced counties saw a small decline in vineyard acreage, while one of the least expensive grape-growing areas on the North Coast added significant acreage.
Napa, home to the most expensive vineyard land in the nation, lost 378 acres of vineyards, declining to 45,537 acres. Sonoma shed 399 acres of vineyards, declining to 59,575 acres. And Mendocino County dropped 30 acres, to 17,303 acres.
Combined, vineyard acreage declined 0.7 percent across the three counties.
Lake County, where grape prices and vineyard development costs are far lower than in Napa and Sonoma, increased the amount of land planted in grapes by nearly 8 percent. The county’s growers added 672 new acres of vineyards last year, bringing the total to 9,454, according to the state report.
The increase has been driven by a steady climb in prices that wineries throughout the North Coast have been willing to pay for Lake County grapes, said Debra Sommerfield, president of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.
“These are brands who are looking for high-quality fruit. Lake County delivers that in spades,” Sommerfield said.
Lake County once had the lowest-priced grapes in the region, but no more. In 2014 it overtook Mendocino County, and today is third behind Napa and Sonoma. Wineries paid an average of $4,336 per ton for Napa grapes, followed by Sonoma at $2,443 and Lake at $1,601. Mendocino trailed at $1,520 per ton.
The high cost of vineyard land in Napa and Sonoma, which often exceeds $300,000 and $100,000 per acre respectively, is part of the reason vintners have looked north to increase their supply of grapes. Bill Foley, president of Foley Family Wines, purchased the historic Langtry Estate & Vineyards in southern Lake County in 2012. He said he’s planted an additional 80 acres of vineyards at the estate since then, bringing the total to around 300 acres.
Having additional Lake County grapes, especially reds that do well in the region’s volcanic soils, allows Foley to blend them with his Sonoma County wines, such as cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma-based Sebastiani winery, to keep the prices reasonable, he said.
“Lake County land is a third of what it is in Sonoma County,” Foley said.
The high cost of vineyard development is one reason — but far from the only one — for some softness in the supply of Sonoma County vineyards, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, a trade group that represents more than 1,800 grape growers.
The drop is not a reflection of a lack of demand for the county’s premium wines, which continue to enjoy solid growth. Rather, it’s a combination of high planting costs, a tight labor market, a four-year drought and challenges finding healthy rootstock, Kruse said.