Chinese investor eyes Carneros agritourism center

SONOMA CARNEROS -- A wealthy Chinese entrepreneur wants to turn 502 acres of the Roche family ranch and vineyards on the Sonoma County side of Los Carneros winegrowing region into a first stop for wine country visitors from the Bay Area to experience how wine and other major North Coast agricultural products are made.

Purchases of wineries and vineyards from foreign investors, particularly from China, has been a closely watched trend in the past couple of years, as a number of properties have become available.

Since Wenchen Zhu purchased the seven parcels from Joseph Roche, co-founder of Roche Winery & Vineyards, on June 7 for $15.475 million in cash, Mr. Zhu and his representative have been working with a team of local professionals to develop a master plan for the property as well as design and regulatory compliance for a sparkling-wine brand, Bliss Canyon Winery.

[caption id="attachment_84849" align="alignleft" width="405"] A Chinese investor purchased the remaining 502 acres of the Roche family ranch in southern Sonoma Valley and plans to create a destination agritourism education center focused on smaller local producers. The buyer first saw the Roche property while visiting Ram's Gate Winery, seen on the hilltop in the distance. (images courtesy of Wine Realty International)[/caption]

The property includes a 6,000-square-foot home with swimming pool, a barn, 49 acre-foot reservoir and 113 acres of vines, mostly planted to chardonnay with some to pinot noir and merlot. The ranch is said to be suitable for planting vines on up to another 150 acres. Demarcation lines for Sonoma Coast and Los Carneros winegrowing regions go through the vineyards on the property.

Also included in the deal are water rights permits for nearby springs.

"At first, the discussion was purely about a winery, but to distinguish itself from the hundreds in the area we would build in an agritourism element to provide education and build a brand at the same time," said Mr. Zhu's rep, Allan Cao, managing partner of Shanghai Great Wall Etech Investment Management Co. and a Sonoma State University alumnus. "That would make wine marketing easier, because there would be other products with the same name."

The plan, set to be completed in coming months ahead of beginning the land-development process with county government, at this point includes a 250,000-case winery designed for alternating proprietorships -- shared use of the facility -- as well as joint facilities for other farm products. The Bliss Canyon brand is envisioned to be mostly sold directly to consumers and to on-premise accounts, eventually reaching production of 35,000 cases a year. Thus far, products envisioned include grass-fed beef, artisan cheese and culinary oil the nearly 1,000 olive trees on the property.

The cost of this plan isn't being disclosed at this point. A major variant could be the cost of creating parking, perhaps solar array-covered, to encourage use of the property as a hub for tours to reduce traffic elsewhere in the North Coast, Mr. Cao said.

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