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 conditions all can affect costs. In getting a vineyard to full production, you will have to plant the vineyard and farm the property for three years. Vine costs also vary. A good number to use, including planting and site preparation, is between $15,000 and $25,000 an acre. That’s a total number and does not include financing.
Once a vineyard is in production the farming costs again are variable. Crop size, weather and vineyard design all play into your annual farming expense. I suggest you consider a figure of between $2,500 to $3,500 an acre in annual farming costs.
Revenue is a function of yield and grape pricing. Yield is a function of weather, viticulture practices and the unknown. Grape prices are a function of supply and demand. Grapes are sold by the ton and prices vary from area to area and from variety to variety. In 2000 in Sonoma County, the average price for a ton of grapes was just under $2,000. However, Russian River Pinot was going for $3,500 a ton while some Chardonnay was going for $1,200 a ton. You have to look carefully at the variety and the appellation to determine actual price per ton you can expect. That is a pretty big range. Different varietals have different pricing structures. So our mythical 10-acre vineyard, yielding 50 tons of cabernet at $2,500 a ton, would give us gross revenues of $125,000. Our expenses would be $35,000. Net income for the year, no debt service, could be about $90,000. There are also depreciation benefits for tax purposes. Consult your own CPA for tax advice.
For more information on grape prices see the Grape prices from USDA Crush Report. Sonoma County is District 3.
Financing a vineyard development project requires substantial equity. As a general rule banks like to see an owner have 40% or more equity in the project. Our 10-acre vineyard could cost about $200,000 to develop at $20,000 an acre. Land costs also can vary. We saw highs reaching $30,000 to $75,000 per acre for bare land and upwards of $100,000 for high quality producing vineyards. Our 10 acre vineyard might sell for $500,000. The total expense to create that producing 10-acre vineyard, in year three, would be $750,000. An owner would probably need $300,000 in equity in the project and the bank may provide the rest of the capital.
Selling quality Sonoma County grapes also varies. Some growers have short or long term contracts and others sell at market prices each year. Contracts can reduce risk and also reduce rewards. Some people lease their whole vineyard to a grower, who then makes his or her own deals. Wine grape prices like all commodities are subject to economics, supply and demand. In planting a vineyard a grower should have some marketing ideas for the fruit.
Vineyards can last for a long time. Typically most vineyards don’t die out. Changing farming technology and consumer preference often times drive replanting. Sometimes pests or disease can mandate a replant situation. With farming things can occurs out of your control. Generally grape vines are hearty. They will grow anywhere it seems. The key is quality and production.
The vastness of Sonoma County with its diverse climate and topography allows growers to produce grapes for distinct wines from the same grape variety. Various areas are known by Appellations. Appellations reflect unique climate, soil and other conditions which tend to produce wines unique to those areas. Having grapes with a respected appellation can mean better quality and higher prices. Here are more details on Sonoma County Appellations.