For those looking to make California's vaunted Wine Country their home, it helps first to understand the lay of this majestic land
California Wine Country.
The mere mention of these three words invokes enviable, dream-worthy imagery.
Expansive vineyards set amongst rolling hills.
Day trips to the Pacific Ocean to the west or Redwoods to the north.
Sipping a favored California Cabernet on the back patio of a local B&B.
These specific visions come true just north of San Francisco on California's North Coast. This rugged area of seaside vistas, towering forests, and horizon-stretching vineyards are famously known for the counties of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino.
Each county is a spectacular place to visit, but the ultimate dream is making this majestic part of the country a permanent part of your life.
Whether it's through buying a primary residence, acquiring a second home, discovering a long-term investment property, or—dare we suggest—charging into the wine business, there's plenty of opportunities for those who dream big.
However, real estate in California's North Coast is a unique affair. There's plenty of variety beyond the wine, such as the numerous cities and towns and their respective housing options. For those with even greater ambitions, there's the land itself to consider.
So before you trace that fine bottle of Cabernet or Pinot Noir back to its Wine Country roots— and establish some of your own—let's explore the ins and outs of wine country real estate.
Technically speaking, the core of California's North Coast includes the counties of Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, and Mendocino. However, for most real estate discussions, Wine Country is defined as Mendocino and Lake Counties and the North Bay Area enclaves of Napa and Sonoma. The latter two are the unquestionable stars of the show, but ultimately, this foursome is part of a natural inclusion.
By themselves, Napa and Sonoma are the Bordeaux of the United States—wine-producing powerhouses where many Wine Country dreams get their start.
As the country’s premier wine-producing region, these two counties are also the primary real estate draws to Northern California.
The more famous and idyllic of these two counties is Napa. If you have a preferred America Cabernet, it probably came from a vineyard in the area's namesake valley.
Aside from the incredible selection of wineries—there are over 400 in Napa alone—the county has some cozy little burgs to call home. The city of Napa retains much of its late-1800s charm and serves as the front porch of Wine Country.
Heading north, you'll encounter a number of charming hamlets before reaching St. Helena, nicknamed "Napa Valley's Main Street." It earns this moniker by proving that all of the best stereotypes of Wine Country are true—outstanding eateries, luxurious accommodations, and first-class wine.
Calistoga, with its abundant hot springs and indulgent spa treatments, is Napa's version of an escape from the escape.
Head west, however, and Sonoma County has plenty of its own appeal. Set along the Pacific Ocean, this area features the oft romanticized Highway 101 as its central artery. It also provides the most direct route from Wine Country into the Bay Area and San Francisco.
As a result, Sonoma is the most widely-developed of the four primary wine-producing counties, with the city of Santa Rosa as its major hub of activity. Offering a mix of major wine houses and smaller, family-owned operations, Sonoma is home to nearly 450 wineries, serving as the region's biggest wine producer.
The further north you head, the wilder side of Sonoma shines through. Here, rivers, lakes, and vineyard-laden valleys are the rule—not the exception—exemplifying the peaceful settings found in the North Coast's more rural locales. Case in point is Healdsburg, a delightful town along the picturesque Russian River.
For those seeking an even more dynamic water view, the Pacific Ocean should do. A westward trip along the Skaggs Springs Road from Geyserville to Stewarts Point and the state's other celebrated roadway—Highway 1—is a harrowing, otherworldly journey with a Pacific payoff at the end.
Speaking of views, cross into Mendocino County and you’ll discover what is arguably the most underrated gem in Wine Country. Roughly 100 wineries operate here, with Pinot Noir being the dominant varietal.
Anderson Valley is your gateway to this untamed region, and the county seat of Ukiah along Highway 101 is the epitome of small-town life. Ukiah's population of less than 20,000 makes it the largest city in Mendocino County—an indication of the untarnished experience that awaits future homebuyers. Hopland is a popular landing spot for second home seekers and commuters who work in more commercially-centric Sonoma County.
Geographically speaking, Mendocino is a melting pot. Vineyards, forests, rivers, beaches, and land ripe for the burgeoning growth of cannabis lend itself to those Wine Country dreamers with more than just wine on their mind. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the county's featured attraction—Coastal Mendocino along the Pacific Ocean.
Not to be overlooked, Lake County often flies well under the Wine Country radar. Its location to the east of Mendocino and the north of Napa places it out of the purview of most visitors to the region.
Its wine operations are modest but growing, with roughly 35 wineries at current count. The area promotes a remote (and affordable) rural charm for those that want to keep Wine Country firmly within their grasp, but remain well outside its central orbit.
The reward for stepping back from the more mainstream wine counties is direct access to the stunningly beautiful sanctuary of Clear Lake.
As you might now realize, finding the right home in Wine Country depends more on the lifestyle you're seeking versus your preferred style of home.
To be sure, there’s outstanding architectural variety across the region. Rustic, modern, California Craftsman, quaint cottages, and grand estates—if you're willing to pay the price, your dream abode can be yours pretty much anywhere in Wine Country.
Napa County is unquestionably the soul of California's Wine Country. Heavy on tourism, it's also the hotbed of real estate activity in the region. Within its individual cities, there's a lot of property movement.
For the first quarter of 2020, the city of Napa saw much of the transaction volume, accounting for over 70% of sold properties. The average sales price was $925,000. St. Helena and Calistoga saw less activity but commanded considerably higher sales prices— $2.4 million and $1.2 million, respectively. The tradeoff is the opportunity to secure grander homes and more acreage the further north you look.
Overall, Sonoma home prices are more modest. Healdsburg had the highest per transaction value for the first quarter at $1.2 million per sale. But it also saw the least activity among the county's major cities. Santa Rosa had nearly 300 homes sold at an average price of $700,000, and the popular Sonoma Valley averaged $911,000 across approximately 70 transactions.
Given their more rural setting, both Mendocino and Lake Counties command less in terms of pricing. Median sales price hovers around $500,000.Along the Pacific Coast, the city of Mendocino offers homes slightly above that half-million mark. Lake County homes around Clear Lake command far less and often work well as excellent investment properties.
Of course, as is the case with Napa and Sonoma, if you want extravagance, you can have it across the entire Wine Country region. Some individual listings will exceed the $5 million threshold, while other opportunities might include wine production. Speaking of which:
Although many transplants are happy with finding their perfect Wine Country home, preferably tucked into a hillside in Napa or Sonoma, that's not every buyer's goal.
The primary attraction in Wine Country is, of course, the wine.
Certainly, the utopia-esque landscape is a critical draw. So too is the free-spirited vibe emanating from each community. But it's no accident that, considering the fact the U.S. wine market is the largest in the world, a certain percentage of those who relocate do so with the intent of crafting their own wine.
While that endeavor is not for the faint of heart, understanding what land might be available for a would-be vintner is less complicated.
As one might expect, Napa County is where the action is when it comes to both existing vineyards and plantable land.
In prime Napa Valley locations, vineyards are valued at upwards of $450,000 per acre, with plantable parcels in the same locales assessed between $200,000 and $275,000 per acre. Both markets are stable with strong demand.
For comparison, vineyards and plantable acres in the less frequented outlying areas of Napa County both run between $50,000 and $165,000 per acre. While there is less demand, these areas still maintain stable values.
In comparison, the Sonoma market is less active with much lower demand. In fact, while the market in Sonoma remains relatively stable, both Mendocino and Lake Counties may provide a higher ROI depending on a buyer's specific goals.
For instance, Mendocino's well-regarded coastal Anderson Valley commands between $65,000 and $110,000 per acre for vineyards and $25,000 to $35,000 per acre for plantable sites. Compare that to prime Sonoma vineyards at $100,000 to $215,000 per acre or prime plantable sites at $70,000 to $120,000 per acre, and you might find an opportunity in Mendocino compared to more desirable landing spots.
Of course, none of that may ultimately matter to those determined to make a home on the North Coast. After all, dreamers are going to dream, and there's no better place to live them out than in California’s Wine Country. If you’re ready to make the move to this beautiful area, contact Kevin McDonald today.