December 13, 2013
PD Editorial: Grape-growing still a family business
The Press Democrat's comprehensive review this week on the state of the grape-growing industry and vineyard ownership in Sonoma County leaves readers much to savor.
Foremost, we can take comfort in the fact that although large companies have expanded their holdings in local vineyards in recent years, the majority of vineyards are still owned and farmed by independent growers. Moreover, the majority are still family-owned operations that remain vital to the local economy.
As the analysis of county property tax records showed, the 10 largest vineyard owners in Sonoma County control more than a quarter of the county's $400 million grape crop. The top three companies — Jackson Family Wines, E&J Gallo and Silverado Premium Properties — combined own about 8,800 acres planted to grapes, according to an analysis of county property tax records. And Jackson and Gallo are continuing to look to expand.
Nonetheless, as reported by Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz, two-thirds of the vineyards in the county are still owned by independent growers while about a third are owned by wineries, according to industry experts. That's in sharp contrast to Napa County where wineries own an estimated two-thirds of the grape-growing land while independent growers hold the other third.
But, as this week's “Power growers” series made clear, many in the industry believe that land costs and market pressures are going to make it more difficult for generational family-owned farms to continue operating.
Meanwhile, the grape-growing industry faces other changes and present other challenges for the county, including:
• Demands on water. As the series noted, a typical 100-acre vineyard could use more than 32 million gallons of water per year. As much as 15 million gallons more could be used if frost protection is needed. The impacts of that amount of water won't be as apparent in years of plenty. But in dry years, such as this, it can have significant impacts. And, as studies show, water demand, particularly during days of spring frost, can pose threats to the health of Russian River fish populations.
• Demands for more land. Industry experts predict that the expansion of vineyards in Sonoma County will slow to a trickle because there's little land left for planting. That may be true. But we've heard that before.
Many claimed expansions had stopped after vineyard acreage grew from 28,000 acres in 1989 to 44,700 acres in 1998, an increase of nearly 60 percent in nine years. But over the next decade, vineyard acreage grew another 40 percent in Sonoma County, reaching a peak of 62,900 acres in 2009.
That number has since dropped a little, but as land prices grow, pressure will certainly build again to find new places to grow grapes. As a result, the county's hillside vineyard ordinance and timberland conversion regulations will most likely be put to the test.
• Finally, there are the many unknowns associated with climate changes. Recent studies by Stanford University researchers and others suggest that the climate here and in other leading wine-growing areas in the world will be altered significantly due to rising temperatures. What changes that will bring and challenges that will present to local grape growers are unclear.
All of this simply underscores that while grape-growing comes with a certain cache and provides numerous benefits to the local economy, it's hard work and ever-evolving. And continued vigilance is needed — from an environmental and land-use perspective — to protect Sonoma County from getting too much of a good thing.
C 2013 Press Democrat