A growing number of Bay Area residents are so enamored of the concept of Wine Country that they've created one in their backyard. Literally.
Suburban vineyards have become a more fashionable form of landscaping for well-heeled residents in posh zip codes around the region, with cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir replacing ground cover while homeowners get an up-close-and-personal taste of the wine lifestyle.
Locals have counted more than 100 home vineyards of late in exclusive Los Altos Hills on the Peninsula while nearby wealthy hamlets like Saratoga, Woodside and Portola Valley are studded with grapevines spreading over expansive properties that also contain multi-million-dollar houses. Another booming suburban wine country is the East Bay's Lamorinda (Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda), where numerous homeowners have planted vineyards in a region that recently obtained its own AVA.
"I'm lovin' it!" says a Los Altos Hills vineyard owner about his wine avocation. Romance aside, however, vineyard hobbyists soon realize that tending to vitus vinifera grapes and addressing the resulting winemaking required can be a demanding, costly, time-intensive activity. Coming to the rescue in the Bay Area is a retinue of vineyard managers, personal winemakers and consultants who take over these chores for those with better things to do.
As winemaker Katie Fox of Private Vine Wines in Santa Cruz explains it, "They're farmers now and the cows keep needing to be milked. Every fall, they'll have a lot of grapes. What are they going to do with them? They're not going to make jam. I try to take the pain away because most of them work so much that they're never home. Everybody is doing something to make a lot of money to be able to afford these places."
The main task of her company, which is also a bonded winery, is to do all the work required to make the wine for clients from their grapes, providing the space, equipment, barrels, corks, storage and know-how, then delivering finished bottles of wine. "We get some lots that are so small that we don't use our equipment. I just jump in there like Lucille Ball and crush them because it takes, like, two hours to clean our crusher."
Fox also does a lot of hand holding, extracting details about the kinds of wines clients like and connecting them to other professionals who can assist with viticulture issues and other tasks. She relates the tale of one client -- a top tech executive -- who decided he wanted to start doing his own winemaking. He purchased pricey equipment for that purpose, only to come back to Private Vine Wines. "You can't be flying off to South Korea all the time and be a winemaker," Fox explains.
While she says many of her clients are surprised at the price of outsourcing the winemaking, colleague Ron Mosley, proprietor of Vinescape in Gilroy, reports that his clients "don't care what it costs." He manages 80 vineyards-- most of them non-commercial-- from Woodside to Gilroy, also performing winemaking and whatever else clients require. Many of Mosley's clients are high-powered CEOs who are used to giving orders, he says. "That four-letter word 'done' is now part of my mantra," he notes.
This client attitude extends to some vineyard aspects that would be non-issues in a commercial winery. Say, after Mosley's vineyard workers haven't adequately manicured the rows to country-club standards. "I'll go pull the three weeds they left and then the client is happy," he says. But Mosley puts his foot down regarding certain requests, like moving the harvest date to accommodate a client's trip to Italy, which can negatively impact wine quality.
He's learned to be crafty to maintain harmony, like scheduling the fruit thinning that high-end vineyards often need. Seeing grapes on the ground horrifies clients so now Mosley says, "I ask, 'When are you going on vacation?' That's when we go in and thin and take the fruit out of there in buckets." Before implementing this strategy, his crews would thin in the usual way, leaving the fruit. Says Mosley, "Oh god, did I get phone calls!"
To avoid the drama, vineyard manager/winemaker Nancy Freire has just a handful of carefully chosen clients on the Peninsula and in the South Bay who give her carte blanche to produce wine as good as possible from vineyards that, ideally, she specified and planted. Her company, Vino Fino Consulting, "specializes in what I would call estate wines where the family loves having the vineyard on their property and they love the concept of having wine made from their vineyard only. But they don't have the time or knowledge to do it themselves."
Some competing services can vinify grapes together that come from different properties-- a less costly approach-- thus not delivering true estate wines to clients. But Freire says not everyone wants to pay for her high-end method. "A lot of people who buy homes with vineyards on them are not prepared to drop $12,000 a year or more to have their own wine made," she explains. Even at that, "Nobody's getting rich off making wine," says the former Silicon Valley engineer.
Although agriculture certainly isn't as controllable as high-tech manufacturing-- "In 2008, the vines froze in March so there was no fruit," Freire recalls-- one of the many aha aspects of becoming a gentleman farmer is the possible excess product. "Even if you only have half an acre, if you end up with a decent crop, you're gonna have two barrels" of wine, she reports. That translates to roughly 120 gallons or around 576 bottles of wine for just one year. That's a lot of Christmas gifts.
Most consultants like Freire and Mosley can help clients sell their excess-- fruit or wine-- to bonded wineries. In fact, Mosley's recently established TASS Winery in Gilroy will sell blended wines from client grapes in the near future. Meanwhile, some existing commercial operations have secondary businesses that suck up the surfeit. San Martin's Clos LaChance Winery has a division called CK Vines that offers a "soil to sipping" service that does it all for clients, as does Post & Trellis, part of La Honda Winery in Redwood City. These companies usually use client grapes in commercial wines under the wineries' label, returning some bottles of wine to the vineyard owners. Wines from locally grown grapes can be tasted at these wineries.
Those wanting their grapes put into estate wines are also accommodated -- for a price. According to the Post & Trellis website, the charge for such estate wines will work out to $20 to $36 per bottle depending on various options. In general, "Selling grapes to wineries is not a super-profitable market," explains consultant Prudy Foxx, a viticulture expert who's been called "the Grape Whisperer" because she fixes the many things that can go wrong during the grape-growing process.
"Nobody calls me because they're happy," explains Foxx, who is one of the specialists frequently tapped by homeowners and their vineyard managers. "Some people don't realize how much work it is and don't have the commitment to the timing aspects," she says. "If you miss those early sprays, you're messed up for the whole year. There's nothing more depressing than a bunch of mildewed grapes."
Foxx often has to reset some of her clients' erroneous ideas, like what "organic" means. "They think it means you don't have to do anything," she explains. If true, that would certainly be easier and cheaper for homeowners but, "In reality, it means you use organic products," Foxx explains.
Another common fallacy is that making vineyards suffer produces better wine. "I see lots of vineyards that weren't planted in good sites and aren't well cared for because people have this misguided idea that a tortured vineyard is a good vineyard. That stress is good," she reports.
According to Foxx, many mistakes can be made by home vineyard owners. "They could have an unsuitable site. Poor drainage, a cold spot-- there's any number of things that could make it not suitable. Those are the ones who I recommend should buy a really nice wine cellar. Take the money they would have invested in that vineyard and take a high-quality trip to Bordeaux and buy nice wines," she says.
Fellow consultant Shea Comfort is a fermentation expert in Walnut Creek who often works with the growing number of home vineyard owners in Lamorinda. Some of his clients have had manicured vineyards that mainly functioned as trendy landscaping-- and they didn't usually keep the resulting not-so-great wine. But since it's Comfort's job to maximize the wine that each site can produce, "Those who have worked to improve grape quality are often amazed when they taste the resulting wine afterward," he says, noting that their common reaction is, "Wow, this is what I've been giving away?"
But the forceful one-percenters who can afford home vineyards sometimes persist in their fantasies, like insisting on planting their favorite varietals on their property, regardless of the site characteristics. To a pinot noir-loving client with an estate in hot Brentwood, he might ask, "'Why are you doing this?' 'Because I like pinot.' That's the wrong answer. Pinot doesn't like Brentwood,'" Comfort explains to them. "I ask them, 'Do you want to make really nice wine or do you want to struggle with something because you like it and never be happy with it?'"
Comfort and his fellow experts are unanimous about the terrible economics of home wine growing, with properly maintaining small vineyards requiring the same financial outlays as doing so on the larger scale of a commercial vineyard. But this hardly deters those with money who fall in love with the idea of planting vineyards and having their own wine.
Count Moraga home vineyard owner Carol Haag and her husband as part of the converted. They pay skilled vineyard managers and a local winemaker to do the hard work, reveling in the resulting wine, which she says is quite good. Admits Haag: "We figured that for what we pay, a bottle of our wine would be $80. We're not in it to make money but to enjoy it."
But farming being farming, things can still go wrong. "The second year, we had all these wild critters, primarily raccoons, that ate all our grapes and had the nerve to swim in our pool afterwards and left all this purple residue everywhere. So we literally lost the first harvest," Haag recalls. She also keeps an eye out for the birds that are always waiting to swoop down for a grape treat.
Like other Bay Area home vineyard owners, the joy outweighs the challenges for Haag. "It's fun," she says. "A real feeling of accomplishment. You feel like a farmer because you're out in the elements." And the deeply pleasurable aspects can carry away some suburban grape growers, who begin nourishing dreams of going commercial and making a living at it. "Good luck with that is what I say," Haag states. "I'll just be a little grape grower."
The many challenges inherent in making good wine are onerous enough for bonded wineries, so most home vineyard owners hire professionals to do the work. But a small subset of passionate residents are stepping up to the plate and doing everything themselves. Retired semiconductor executive Scott Bryan of Los Altos Hills has "made about every mistake you can make in the planting, growing and making of wine," he reports. Snails and rodents have consumed his plants, powdery mildew has ruined his crop, birds and deer are ever watchful for a free meal.
But after reading "hundreds of papers," taking classes at UC Davis and addressing vineyard management and winemaking as yet another engineering problem, he seems to have muscled his way to a satisfying and successful result. After being pushed by his adult children to enter a home winemaking contest, four of six wines from his 2013 vintage were awarded medals, including a hard-to-get double gold. Now he's seriously hooked.
When he pours his rich reds at wine events in town, tasters frequently want to buy some. But despite the flattery, he easily ignores the siren song of going commercial. "This is my retirement job -- but I don't consider it much of a job. It's a hobby. I spend a lot of time out here," he says, pointing at the orderly vines marching down from his hilltop site.
As consultant Shea Comfort explains, "Most of the hobby guys are doing it for love. It's beautiful. They make wine they can share. They're proud of it. Some guys, when they start making nice wines, they go, 'Oh, maybe I want to start a winery.' I say, 'You should think again about that. Seriously, let's sit down and let your head cool off.'"
Where to taste locally grown wines:
- La Honda Winery, 2645 Fair Oaks Ave., Redwood City. Private tours and tastings can be scheduled and monthly events are held for wine club members. (650) 366-4104
- Clos LaChance Winery, 1 Hummingbird Lane, San Martin. The tasting room is open most of the year from 11 to 4:30. (800) 487-9463
- TASS Winery, 3200-A Dryden Ave., Gilroy. Currently, some locally grown blends can be sampled at barrel tastings by appointment only. The winery will officially open in June. (408) 858-1862
- Public tastings of wines made from home vineyards in Los Altos Hills are held periodically at "Vines & Wines" events. To see event listings, go to the town's community calendar. The next scheduled activity is a Vintner’s Appreciation Day on July 10, 2016, from 3-6 p.m. at the Los Altos Hills Town Hall.