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Wine industry veterans see declining vineyard expansion

  • Jose Anguiano places a metal stake to mark where chardonnay vines will be planted in the spring at Sonoma Cutrer Vineyards, near Windsor, in this file photo from Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013. (PD FILE, 2013)

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.

Search our interactive map of Sonoma County vineyards here

Sonoma County Vineyards: Who Are The Players?

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“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.

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