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Power Growers in Sonoma County: www.pressdemocrat.com/vineyard

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.

High costs

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.

‘Micro-plantings’

In many cases, these constraints have made some growers hesitant to invest in major expansion or replanting efforts. Instead many growers are focusing on “micro-plantings” where they replace perhaps a half-acre of under-performing or diseased vines but hold off on larger projects.

“The planting we’re seeing is much more maintenance of existing vineyards than expansion,” Kruse said.

Growers who’ve been hit with a disease called “red blotch,” which prevents grapes from ripening properly, are being extremely cautious before replanting until they can be certain new vines won’t also contract the disease, she said.

“The last thing you want to do is pull out something that is diseased and then put it right back in,” said Kruse, who owns a syrah vineyard slated for removal because of the disease.

This wait-and-see approach may be partly to blame for the drop in vineyard acreage on the North Coast, Kruse said. Though the decline was small last year, it marked the second year in a row that vineyard acreage in the North Coast gave up some ground.

In 2014, the number of acres planted to grapes in the four counties dipped 0.5 percent, ending a five-year period of expansion where vineyard acreage grew nearly 4 percent, to a record 132,698 acres.

While the decline in vineyard acreage remains slight, it’s a concern for the industry, she said.

“It’s certainly a trend we want to watch given how important agriculture is to Sonoma County,” she said.

Flat for decade

Individual vineyard development projects have sparked controversy and concerns about the industry’s growth, but Thursday’s report is the latest to show the acreage devoted to grapes in Sonoma County has been largely flat for more than a decade.

After a planting boom between 1996 and 2003 that saw grape acreage in the county soar by 60 percent, the county’s vineyard acreage has increased by just 2 percent since then.

Looking to Lake

Glenn Proctor, a partner in the Ciatti Company wine brokerage, said even though the total acreage isn’t increasing, there is a lot of activity in the industry, especially with wine brands adjusting their sourcing. He said he knows of several wineries looking to Lake County for their future growth.

“We’re seeing wineries expand their horizons in terms of supply,” Proctor said.

There are significant regulatory pressures in Sonoma County that affect vineyard development, including restrictions on hillside planting and protections aimed at helping the endangered tiger salamander, Proctor said. But the decreases in acreage are so slight and the industry so healthy that he doesn’t see a long-term downward trend in sight.

“My guess is it won’t be down again this year,” Proctor said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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