As the largest wineries increase their vineyard holdings, industry veterans say future expansion of vineyards in Sonoma County may be minimal because there is little land left to plant.
The land that remains doesn't have the water or the warmth to support premium vineyards, and regulations on hillside planting are strong enough to dissuade those who can't afford to clear those hurdles, many say.
<i>Search our interactive map of Sonoma County vineyards<a href="http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/99999999/multimedia/131119775" target="_blank"><b> here</b></a></i>
"It's like going to the supermarket at the end of the day, and all the best fruits and best tomatoes are picked over," said David Freed, chairman of Silverado Premium Properties, the third-largest vineyard owner in Sonoma County.
But 15 years ago, wine industry veterans were saying essentially the same thing.
Vineyard acreage had swelled from 28,000 acres in 1989 to 44,700 acres in 1998, an increase of nearly 60 percent in just nine years, according to data on the county's grape crop collected annually by the Agriculture Commissioner's office.
"No one thought there was any more room, and then the whole Sonoma Coast thing got started," said Jon Fredrikson, president of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a Woodside wine industry consulting firm.
Over the next decade, vineyard acreage grew more than 40 percent in Sonoma County, peaking at 62,900 acres in 2009. It fell to 59,200 acres last year, after the recession led many wine consumers to trade down to cheaper wines, and growers and wineries had less capital to invest in replanting older vineyards.
Today, the 10 largest vineyard owners in Sonoma County control more than a quarter of the county's $400 million grape crop, according to a Press Democrat analysis of county property tax records.
The best vineyards are largely held by families or companies that don't want to sell, so those who want to buy in or expand will have to pay top dollar to compete. Some fear that small family farmers will recede as larger companies win out.
"It sure makes it hard for my son to buy 10 acres or 20 acres and become a grape farmer," said Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturalist at Silverado Premium Properties. "He will be priced out of the market, unless his Dad wins the Lotto. When you start paying $100,000 an acre for land ... unless you have some scale and scope behind you and can keep your costs down, it becomes difficult."
Vineyard values more than doubled in the past two decades, even as new vineyards spread across the county's hills and valleys. Prices ranged from about $25,000 to $40,000 per acre in the mid '90s, but in the past several years, buyers have paid between $60,000 to about $125,000 per acre, according to the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.
The regulatory landscape has changed significantly since the mid 1990s, when there were fewer restrictions on planting vineyards and opening wineries than there are today.
The county passed measures to regulate hillside planting and limit erosion, restricting tree removal on steep slopes. Regulators have cracked down on water diversions from the Russian River, making it harder for growers to irrigate their land and protect their grapes from frost that can wipe out their crops.
"Now we are getting into a place in Sonoma County where we're getting into some difficult ground to develop," said Tony Linegar, the county's agricultural commissioner. "Ground that's steep, ground that has wetlands, ground that has endangered species. And some of the projects we look at now are more complicated, because they have those elements."