Demand for this white wine grape has some Napa, Sonoma vintners eyeing wider North Coast sourcing
Consumers’ thirst for sauvignon blanc are causing some vintners in Napa and Sonoma counties to look elsewhere in the North Coast appellation for high-quality fruit.
In Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, Ferrari-Carano Winery released its first wines in 1987, a fumé blanc and a chardonnay. Fumé blanc is a marketing name for sauvignon blanc coined by the late wine pioneer Robert Mondavi in the late 1960s.
As recently as the 2019 vintage, Ferrari-Carano’s fumé blanc had been labeled with a North Coast appellation, according to the company. By federal law, at least 85% of the grapes have to be grown in an approved American Viticultural Area. The North Coast AVA includes all or substantial portions of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Marin counties plus a sliver of western Solano County.
But after Foley Family Wines acquired the winery in August 2020, the Santa Rosa-based company moved sourcing for Ferrari-Carano fumé blanc back to Sonoma County for the 2020 vintage, according to Shawn Schiffer, Foley president.
"For 2022, our demand exceeded our Sonoma County capacity as consumer demand, and sales of this wine continue to accelerate,“ Schiffer told the Business Journal in an email. ”As a result, we are moving back to a North Coast appellation. We are fortunate that we have access to excellent quality North Coast fruit which allows us to continue to grow without diminishing quality. It is important for us to overdeliver on the quality vs. price ratio.“
Indeed, sauvignon blanc sales have been booming in U.S. stores, restaurants and bars, especially for upper-end wines, according to SipSource, a tracking service run by large wholesalers. Here’s the growth rates last year for the amount of the wine sold at different retail bottle price ranges:
- $8–$11: up 4% in 2022 and 6% in 2021
- $11–$15: up 1.4% and 6.7%
- $15–$25: up 4.4% and 21.9%
- $25–$50: up 18% and 68%
“The sauvignon blanc boom caught the industry by surprise,” said Zach Rasmuson, chief operating officer for The Duckhorn Portfolio, a Napa Valley-based wine group that includes brands such as Duckhorn Vineyards and Decoy. “We started seeing it 24 months ago. We thought sauvignon blanc sales were seasonal — picked up in the summer and slowed down in the summer — but then we started seeing double-digit growth throughout the year.”
The sauvignon blanc label for the Decoy brand had gone to a California appellation because the company thought there would be more access to fruit, but it didn’t turn out to be the case, Rasmuson said. So sourcing for that varietal wine was shifted to the North Coast with the 2021 vintage, sourcing also from Solano and Lake counties.
Sauvignon blanc tonnage has been steadily decreasing in Napa and Sonoma counties, according to the California Grape Crush Report. For the 2022 crush, the grape variety in Lake County had a 71% jump in tonnage, to 15,400, nearly getting back to peak tonnage years in the county in 2019 and 2016.
Sauv blanc in Lake County had tonnage 12.9% higher than its five-year average, while tonnage in Sonoma and Napa counties was down 11.5% and 19.5%, respectively, from their averages.
Land prices have gotten to the point where shifting Napa Valley vineyards to cabernet sauvignon vines makes more sense, Rasmuson said.
“At $400,000–$500,000 an acre, you can pencil it out for cabernet, but you certainly can't for sauvignon blanc,” he said.
But because the 4-decade-old Duckhorn brand’s reputation is partly built on the white grape, so the company last year "paid a high price“ for 12 acres of Napa Valley land to plant sauvignon blanc.
In Lake County, Shannon Family of Wines and its affiliated wine grape growing operation are benefiting from the sauvignon blanc boom, according to founder Clay Shannon.
“Lots of Napa and Sonoma wineries are up here buying it,” he said.
He said the average price for Lake County sauvignon blanc grapes has moved from $1,200—$1,300 a ton leading up to last harvest to $1,600—$2,000 a ton now.
Another major North Coast grower, Beckstoffer Vineyards, has fielded purchase inquiries from wineries to the south looking for cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the No. 1 and 2 wine grape varieties in Napa and Sonoma counties, respectively.
“In short we are seeing an increase in demand for North Coast grapes due to pricing from Napa as well as wineries broadening their wines being designated from the North Coast instead of a single county,” President Dave Michul wrote in an email.
Beckstoffer has 1,230 acres of wine grapes in Mendocino County and 1,694 in Lake County, all but 35 and 40 acres of which are commercially bearing fruit. Of the total vine acreage, the grower has in Mendocino 729 acres of chardonnay and 445 of cab and in Lake 1,568 acres of cab. Other varieties make up the balance.
As suggested by the low percentage of nonbearing acreage, most of those plantings aren’t new. Michul said the grower as is typical replants certain areas because of disease and other factors such as market demand.
“For example, we are seeing an increase in demand for North Coast sauvignon blanc,” Michul said.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at email@example.com or 707-521-4256.