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Monday, May 15, 2017

Sonoma County's Future

Extrapolating from the past is fairly easy. Figuring out the unknown changes is more difficult. I've been around Sonoma County for a few decades and have seen the changes. So looking at where we were is one way to predict the next couple decades. The other is to look at our neighbor, Napa Valley, as they may already be where Sonoma is going. Or, as Yogi once said, "The future ain't what it used to be." Can't argue with that.

Yountville in Napa Valley is too cute and trendy for local working stiffs
Over a million dollars for a small three-bedroom!

What were once family-owned small operations, often in a converted barn or in their home, are probably now owned by a corporation. Old Italian guys making wine in open-top redwood casks? Nope. Bringing in your own jug to have them fill it with Zinfandel or Petite Sirah? Nope.

The old timers like Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood Vineyards, Ravenswood are no longer owned by the families that started them. Then there are "fantasy wineries" like Coppola and Ferrari-Carano where their wine seems to be secondary to the theme park atmosphere.

Where we're going: Big money destination wineries like you see in Napa Valley, such as Darioush and the Castello di Amorosa may become more common. It's gotten very expensive to start up a new winery and it's very competitive. For those few that have started and maintain a successful winery they'll probably be offered millions to sell.


Jug wines? Nope. Prices are too high in Sonoma County to make these anymore. The new norm is $50 Pinot Noir. Just as Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most expensive grape to purchase from Napa Pinot has become Sonoma's most expensive. Prices keep rising on Napa Cabs and people still buy. I expect the same from Sonoma Pinot and many Chardonnays.

Remember when wine tasting used to be free? If you're under 40 you probably don't. Sonoma County wineries typically charge $15 or more. This is still much better than Napa where $25 is the base cost. This won't be going down.

Diversity in agriculture is much better in Sonoma than in Napa. We still have some farm animals and a few fruit crops, but it's changed a lot. In the late 1980s wine grapes passed dairy as the top ag cash crop and there's no looking back. You'll see cows, sheep, some crops, but it's almost all vineyards. Health care and high-tech are also big business in Sonoma County.

Where we're going: Wine prices will go up as long as the economy is doing okay. Tasting fees will rise, but the experiences offered by wineries to compete will get better with food, vineyard tours, seated tasting, etc. The towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg are too popular for their own good and are pretty well saturated. Smaller towns like Sebastopol, Forestville, and Geyserville will pick up the overflow. Marijuana growing will compete with vineyards for water and compete with wine tasting rooms for tourist dollars.
Seated tastings by reservation are the way many wineries are going
Why? Crowd control and a better experience for the visitors
 plus more dollars spent per guest


There are still plenty of small towns in the county, but not many of them are what you'd call sleepy farm villages. It's gone all chic and trendy in Sonoma and Healdsburg with other smaller burgs  coming along for the ride. As an old-time resident and grape grower from Healdsburg told me years ago, "I can't even buy a pair of underwear in Healdsburg anymore." Well, you still might be able to, but they'd be virgin Egyptian cotton and cost $40.

Visitors coming to Sonoma County for wine and food are a major player in the local economy. We have the expensive restaurants and very expensive B&Bs to prove it.

Where we're going: It's called Napification, or turning into another Napa Valley. Towns taken over by tourism and the economy becoming completely dependent on wine and wine tourism. Is it good to have all your eggs in one basket? Probably not. Diversification is usually best. We'll see.