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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, December 30, 2013, 6:30 am

2014 Trends: Demand for vineyards to push values, import share

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    The most significant trend in the North Coast wine business this year and continuing into 2014 is the ongoing, pressing need for more vineyards.

    Related to that, a large number of serious buyers are chasing a small number of coveted wine properties, and that activity is putting pressure on values. Rising values can make wine on the shelf a more expensive proposition, opening the way for even more imported wine.

    Demand for vineyards is “illustrated particularly by what is happening with wine companies looking outside California for vineyards,” Robert Nicholson, president of Healdsburg-based wine industry mergers and acquisitions specialists International Wine Associates.

    In the first half of this year Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines purchased about 1,100 acres of plantable land and vineyards in the 150-mile-long Willamette Valley appellation of western Oregon. The company bought the 250-acre Zena Crown vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills subappellation, 200-acre Gran Moraine hillside vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton subappellation and 350 plantable acres in the 655-acre Maple Grove Vineyard property at the southern end of the valley.

    In late summer, Jackson Family Wines purchased the 15,000-case-a-year Soléna Estate winery also in Yamhill-Carlton.

    Earlier this month, St. Helena-based Duckhorn Wine Co. said it purchased a 20-acre vineyard site in the Red Mountain appellation in Washington state. Once developed, it will provide estate fruit for Canvasback, a new Red Mountain cabernet sauvignon. Planting is set to begin in spring. The 2012 vintage Canvasback is set for release in 2014 at a retail price of $40.

    “While our roots are in Napa Valley, our vision has always been the idea that certain varieties find their best expressions in particular regions,” said Alex Ryan, president and chief executive officer. “Cabernet sauvignon from Red Mountain in Washington state is one of these amazing combinations. This acquisition is a testament to how fully committed we are to Washington state and the Red Mountain AVA.”

    “As wineries increase the percentage of supply of their own vineyards vs. vineyards under contract, it is putting upward pressure on vineyard values,” Mr. Nicholson said.

    Factors reining in development of vineyards in the North Coast and in other California coastal areas include increasing difficulty and cost in securing government approval of the projects and restricted or limited access to water.

    Number of ‘viable’ buyers increases

    There is a significant increase in the number of “viable” buyers of vineyards and wineries and a relative lack of available “viable” opportunities, according to Mr. Nicholson.

    “There are a number that are upside-down and not making the business work,” he said. “It’s a fallacy to say that there are lots of properties on the market. Very few of them are really viable.”

    So there will be a confluence of interest in certain properties, also putting upward pressure on wine-related properties, he predicted. Vineyard property values are rising rapidly in the Central Valley and particularly in the Paso Robles region. This is being driven by improving sales of wine in the U.S. and an increasing number of foreign buyers that want to be a part of one of the most significant growing markets for wine consumption.

    Key recent examples of foreign buyers coming into the North Coast are France-based Artémis Group’s purchase of the Araujo Estate brand in Napa Valley and Chinese businessman Wenchen Zhu’s purchase of the 502-acre Roche Ranch on the Sonoma County side of Los Carneros.

    There’s also increased interest in higher-end Napa County estates among wine industry buyers, according to Mr. Nicholson.

    Along those lines, Jackson Family Wines on Dec. 20 purchased Yverdon Vineyard and Winery, with its castle-like stone production facility and 25 acres of vines in the Spring Mountain district of Napa Valley. The plan is to move production of the Lokoya label there this spring.

    Imported wine to continue to grow

    As wine properties get more expensive to acquire, the resulting wine will get more expensive. Rising retail prices together with constraints on domestic supply can open the door to more imported wine, according to Mr. Nicholson.

    “That’s an inevitability, with more imports, and it’s foreseeable that we’ll see 50 percent imports,” he said.

    These imports are going to be predominantly targeted to the under $10 market. However, there are certain countries export to the U.S. wines that retail over $12 and “overdeliver” on value for the price, Mr. Nicholson said. A key producer of such wine is Argentina, yet its political and inflationary problems are a limiting factor.

    Estimates of vineyards needed to fill demand from consumers are close to 750,000 acres, but only 450,000 new acres are in the ground.

    “Part of that will come from the Pacific Northwest and partly from overseas,” Mr. Nicholson said.

    Pressure from vine diseases

    Another significant constraint on further development of vineyards are disease and pests. Red blotch virus is but the latest in a string of major vine foes that have emerged in recent years, following grapevine leafroll virus, vine mealybug, European grapevine and light-brown apple moths, and glassy-winged sharpshooter-borne Pierce’s disease.

    The leafroll virus, with can reduce grape yield by 10 percent to 20 percent, was discovered only in the past several years, and red blotch even more recently because the visual symptoms — reddened leaf veins and edges — resemble those of leafroll, according to University of California, Davis, researchers. Except that red blotch has the unwelcome feature of lowering grape sugar just before harvest, when winemakers await levels to rise to a desired point.

    Red blotch has been found in immature and mature grapevines in California, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. It’s also closely linked genetically to a vine virus in Canada.

    This disease du jour made a number of vineyard developers skittish about purchasing vine material. However, relief may be in sight as a UC Davis researcher earlier this year developed a highly sensitive laboratory test for the virus, a test rolled out to major grapevine nurseries.

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