Sonoma County grape growers are expanding into wine
Cross-promotion wasn’t a benefit John Bucher anticipated when he launched Bucher Wines in 2013.
But when the longtime Sonoma County grape grower and dairy farmer decided to diversify the family business and start a wine label with his wife, Diane, the couple saw an uptick in demand for their premium grapes.
“When we went out to events, we’d mingle with other winemakers and pour them our wines,” Bucher said. “They could immediately taste the quality of our estate-grown fruit, which turned out to be a great way to promote our vineyard. That was something we hadn’t expected.”
The Buchers are among an increasing number of longtime grape growers in Sonoma County who have expanded their business in recent years by starting their own wine label. For some, it’s a longtime dream coming to fruition, a temptation driven by the quality fruit that’s been at their fingertips for generations. For others, it’s an unexpected evolution, a safety net for an uncertain future in farming.
For all, it’s a way to showcase the grapes they’ve nurtured from vine to wine, and there is plenty of pride in that.
The evolution of Bucher Farms
Starting a wine label wasn’t the first time Bucher has expanded the family business, which his parents founded as Bucher Farms dairy in 1958.
Located off Westside Road in the Russian River Valley, the 360-acre farm continues to maintain 700 dairy cows, along with 55 acres of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, grenache and zinfandel grapevines.
“In the early 1990s, we began to see challenges in the California dairy industry because expansion was driving prices down,” Bucher said. “So we decided to diversify our business and plant wine grapes.”
In 1997, Bucher planted the property’s first blocks of pinot noir, and over the following years, the fruit became highly sought after by Sonoma County wineries like Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards and Siduri Wines.
Starting their own wine label, Bucher said, felt like a natural progression for a grape grower located in the Russian River Valley. It also proved to be a way to capture better margins from a crop susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature.
“Working with a very perishable crop can be a real challenge,” Bucher said. “By putting the grapes into a finished wine, we hope to even out the highs and lows of farming while expanding our business.”
With Diane’s sales background and the widely known skills of consulting winemaker Adam Lee, the Buchers released their first 250-case vintage of Bucher Wines in 2013. Depending on the growing season, the brand now produces about 1,500 cases of wine per year, made at Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor.
About 15 to 20% of their estate-grown fruit is destined for Bucher Wines, while the remaining crop is sold to about 10 to 15 other wineries.
“We have no plans to stop selling our grapes to other wineries,” Bucher said. “When someone lists our vineyard designate on their label, it strengthens our brand name. A rising tide can lift all boats, so if we’re all making quality wine with the same fruit, it can cross-promote itself.”
Wildfires, a pandemic and drought
The Buchers don’t hesitate to admit the last five years have been a challenge for their multifaceted business. Wildfires, the pandemic and a lack of tourism have greatly impacted wine sales, while drought has reduced grape yields and created severe economic challenges for the dairy industry. While they’d hoped to expand their wine brand by 3 to 5% each year, the couple has been in steady holding pattern the last few.
“We continue to see challenges in the dairy business and are considering moving away from dairy altogether,” Bucher said. “But we’re completely committed to making wine and growing grapes. That’s where we want to dedicate all our time.”
Wine for a new generation
As one of the most revered, well-respected wine growers in California, the Sangiacomo family has a long history of farming in Sonoma County, starting in 1927 when Vittorio Sangiacomo purchased what is now known as the Home Ranch in Sonoma Valley.
But before there were wine grapes, the family grew pears, and by 1959 the Sangiacomos were one of the largest pear-growing businesses in California.
As the pear business began to decline, however, the Sangiacomos tested the waters of wine grape farming in 1969 with the purchase of Green Acres vineyard in Carneros, where the original chardonnay plantings still exist. Gundlach Bundschu became the first winery to include the Sangiacomo Vineyards designation on its label in 1969.
Then they turned to Home Ranch, completely converting the land from pear orchards to vineyards by 1981. Over the years that followed, the Sangiacomo family became widely known as one of the premier grape growers in Sonoma County, expanding from 55 acres in 1980 to the 1,600 acres they farm today.
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