Sonoma County has become famous as one of the great wine regions of the world. There has been great appreciation over the last two decades in both raw land and already planted vineyards. This is a primer about the Sonoma County vineyard market and the basics about buying vineyard property. There are great local resources for a much greater in-depth study and links are provided to get you started.
Here’s a disclaimer: Keep in mind the numbers here are examples to illustrate only and are not a guarantee nor do they necessarily reflect what any given vineyard may or may not produce.
While it is certainly true that growing grapes can be profitable, it is also important to understand it is farming. Unlike investing in CD's at a bank, returns are never guaranteed, pests can destroy crops, weather can drastically change quality and quantity and the supply and demand may not be in your control. If you learn or have the expertise or even hire the expertise it is possible to generate good income from vineyards by selling grapes or even making wine. Many grapes are sold by contract to wineries. There is also an open market every year. Economic success or failure can often be based on the relationships you develop to buyers of grapes and your skill in marketing yours.
Sonoma County is a large county with over 1 million acres of land and over $483 million in 1999 agricultural sales. Just over 1 acre in 20 is planted in grapes, yet grapes sales exceeded $269 million or over 55% of total county farm revenues. Grape production sustains agriculture in Sonoma County today.
Wine grapes are an annual crop. Harvest time is between August and November. Grapes are harvested by either hand or machine picked. The grapes are sold to wineries all over California. Many of our local wineries have vineyards that they utilize for estate wines. Most wineries purchase fruit from other growers for a portion of their wines.
Vineyards usually take three years, from the initial planting, to produce the first crop. Newer planting techniques and plant material have been showing a very small crop in the second year. By the fourth year the vineyard should be in full production. Farming costs are incurred throughout the first three years even though there is little or no crop. There are no harvest expenses, which are significant, if there are no crops.
How vines are planted varies quite a bit, and each grower and wine maker may have their own view on what is best for any given type of grape. The quality and style of wine can vary depending on how it's grown. The number of vines per acre can range from 500 vines to 2000 vines. Trellis and wire support systems are also varied. Farmers are always looking for the optimum balance between crop production and crop quality. Too much fruit can hurt the vine and water down quality. Too little fruit, and you may not get the financial return you want.
Most modern plantings are gearing for tonnage in the 5-7 tons an acre yield. Certain varietals will have higher or lower yields. Production swings can be wide. There are vineyards producing 2 tons an acre and 10 tons an acre. It’s agriculture. So a ten acre vineyard in full production in a normal year could yield about 50 tons of wine grapes.
Planting costs can vary quite a bit. The vineyard layout, topography of the land, and soil con