Bedroom Communities Seek Vineyard AVA

Suburban growers in Bay Area want recognition to help with local wine sales

by Jane Firstenfeld
The boundary of the proposed Lamorinda AVA is within Contra Costa County in California.
Lafayette, Calif.—An association of tiny wineries and petite vineyards clustered in three quiet Contra Costa County bedroom communities has petitioned the TTB to establish the Lamorinda American Viticultural Area.

Members of the Lamorinda Winegrowers Association (LWA)—six bonded wineries, home winemakers and backyard grapegrowers—hope establishing the AVA will attract more consumers among diners in Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda, from which the name was coined. The three cities have a combined population of about 50,000.


    The six bonded wineries within the proposed Lamorinda AVA are:
    • Bullfrog Creek Vineyard
    Captain Vineyards
    Deer Hill Vineyards
    • Meadow View Winery
    Parkmon Vineyards
    • Vincenza Ranch Vineyard

    The petition and comment areas are now available here at TTB online.

Currently, Contra Costa County is home to 30 bonded wineries, according to Wines Vines Analytics. Of these, 15 have limited production (less than 1,000 cases per year) and 12 are classified as “very small” (1,000-4,999 cases); the remaining three, located in the eastern part of the county, are deemed “small” with 5,000-49,999 cases. Just south of Contra Costa in Alameda County, the wine industry has been thriving for more than a century in the Livermore Valley.

Although vintners may now choose to designate their wines with the AVAs Central Coast, San Francisco Bay or Contra Costa County, 29,369-acre Lamorinda is landlocked, and its microclimates are distinctly non-coastal. Pinot Noir vines grow on the hillsides’ upper slopes, while Cabernet Sauvignon prefers lower elevation sites, according to the petition.

David Rey chaired the LWA committee that pursued the petition, funded by member assessments during the past three years. While Rey is a home winemaker who cultivates an acre of grapes, he does not have a bonded winery. Eventually he hopes to sell his wines locally under the label “Reliez Valley Vineyards.”

“We are trying to cultivate a local following,” Rey affirmed. Since the LWA was founded in 2005, establishing an AVA has been a priority to build awareness of the local wines. It’s unlikely there will ever be a wine trail, for instance, because “the rules locally would not allow one, or tasting rooms open to the public,” Rey said. “We are all located in residential areas. We’re never going to be a blip in the wine industry,” he conceded.

“We all operate as home-based businesses. My use permit for a bonded winery does not allow for public tasting,” he said. Following approval of the AVA, the association is contemplating a competition for Lamorinda wines, and possibly a future cooperative tasting room in downtown Lafayette. With its thriving, upscale restaurant culture, “There would be synergy,” Rey suggested. Sommeliers are among the association membership.

Each of the three communities has its own rules regarding zoning and permits, but agriculture is generally an allowed use. “You have to get approval to plant a vineyard,” according to Rey. When he planted his vines, he submitted to a design review. “The city didn’t want something that looked industrial, so the rows follow the contours of the land and flow into the gardens around the house. We’re careful to make sure our vineyard activity doesn’t present a nuisance to the neighbors.”

Helpful neighbors
The Livermore Valley wine industry has been helpful from the start, Rey said. Former LWA president Susan Captain, who owns Captain Vineyards with husband Sal Captain, concurred.

“The Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association has been the most helpful group,” said Captain, who grows 2.5 acres of vineyards in Moraga. I’ve attended many of their viticulture classes.” Captain Vineyards is a bonded winery producing 1,000 cases annually, all sold directly to consumers at an average price of $38 per bottle.

She called Lamorinda a unique area and estimated that the association currently has as many as 90 members. “Most of us are homeowners with a lot. We do tastings by appointment only.” Although her lot is zoned for agriculture, she said, “We are still in a residential community.”

But Lamorinda has a long tradition of agriculture, and grapes were grown there in the 1840s, Captain said. “We are bringing history back; bringing it to attention.” The Lamorinda name has been used for decades in local publications and brands.

Lamorinda has numerous microclimates and considerable diurnal temperature variation. As in all of California, growers there are considering their options during the drought, according to Rey.

“We’re all trying to get smarter. I have a well on my property, but I’ve got moisture probes, a weather station, automated irrigation monitors,” Rey said. “We take it very seriously.”

Professional help

LWA initially hired Colorado-based geographic consultant Patrick Shabram, to help draft their AVA proposal. The vineyard expert had previously consulted with North Coast AVA petitions including Moon Mountain, Fort Ross and Petaluma Gap. 

The Lamorinda group’s mission, he said, was “to distinguish themselves from rest of Contra Costa. Brentwood, for instance, has a very different geography,” he pointed out.
The Lamorinda wineries are very small and primarily selling into the Lamorinda area, he said. “They are selling to use that name. The goal would be to capitalize on the local market. They aren’t looking to greatly expand, but to build a local identity.”

Establishing an AVA “wouldn’t hurt from marketing perspective. The real appeal is the local name,” Shabram said. He doesn’t anticipate objections to the petition. Geologists Drs. Michael Oskin and Kenneth Verosub from the University of California, Davis, prepared the initial soil and geology report, and Shabram completed a climate analysis and overview study, prepared and submitted the petition on LWA’s behalf.

Posted on 04.21.2015 - 09:46:07 PST
Why not just bottle under a vineyard designation? The bond will have a city or town name on it that makes more sense than Lamorinda. I doubt if very many of the residents of "Lamorinda" are even aware of it, which would negate the marketing value.

Posted on 07.01.2016 - 16:28:52 PST
Lamorinda AVA has been granted by the TTB on March 25th 2016. Now we can use Lamorinda on our wine bottles to describe our wines, bringing recognition to the uniqueness of the wine grown in the Lamorinda area. WE can as well add the vineyard designation on the bottle if we wish!! Next step, will be working on marketing Lamorinda wines to the local community.
Susan Captain