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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

A Bumper Crop of Home Vineyards

Trends: As backyard grapes become fashionable, specialty firms that tend them are taking root.


ALAMO, Calif. — Perched on a backyard bench, wine glass in hand, Bill Barley drinks in the vista of his backyard vineyard--watching the majestic plants rustle in the breeze, listening to the easy rhythm of the drip irrigation.

"The most peaceful part of my day," says Barley, a computer industry consultant. "There's nothing better in the world than just sitting back and watching my grapes grow."

Barley and his wife, Diane, don't actually tend the grapes--someone else does that for them. But they are reveling in their newfound status in this suburban Contra Costa County town, where a fledgling crop of merlots and chardonnays sprouts outside their new French Provincial-style home, where people stop to gawk at their grapes, where neighbors call them the "wine people."

Just down the road from the sweeping wine country estates of Napa and Sonoma counties, boutique backyard vineyards are emerging as the Bay Area's must-have amenity--like the his-and-her tennis courts and kidney-shaped pools--to suggest the discerning California lifestyle.

Home vineyards come in all shapes and sizes. They mark gracious estates and hilltop haciendas as well as the backyards of suburban subdivisions and tiny roadside cottages.

The Barleys' backyard conversation piece is one of the bigger ones. Sweeping across two hillsides beneath their home, their 720 vines serve as a scenic gateway to an exclusive mountainside enclave. Others are as small as 25 vines sandwiched into a sideyard.

For new vineyard owner Marian Johnson, size doesn't matter.

"We've only got 100 plants, but our little vineyard is unique," said Johnson, a Contra Costa County homemaker whose husband is vice president of a software company. "It doesn't look like every one else's backyard. And it sure beats those boring old shrubs."

A new crop of companies has risen to meet the boutique vineyard demand, charging $5,000 to $50,000 to plant, care for, crush and even bottle grapes.

Tom Powers, co-owner of the year-old Diablo Vineyard Planting and Management Co., said some of his customers are wine aficionados looking to create their own labels. Others are fascinated by the grape-growing culture. But most just want neighborly bragging rights to the most exotic backyard.

"Many folks don't even like wine," said Powers, whose company tends 24 home vineyards. "They say, 'I don't care what you do with the grapes--I just like the look.' "

Experts say these boutique vineyards are a new wrinkle on a well-aged grape growing practice. While commercial growers statewide lease swaths of private land to increase growing acreage and explore new "microclimates," the allure of backyard vineyards is more aesthetics than production.

"The awareness is growing that home vineyards are a real alternative," says Eric Wente, whose Livermore winery maintains 40 home vineyards. "There's nothing better than growing a crop you can drink and enjoy."

Gladys Horiuchi, a spokeswoman for the Wine Institute in San Francisco, agreed: "This seems like a happy marriage between housing developments and agriculture."

When Contra Costa County resident Joseph Gorny thinks of his future vineyard, violins start playing in his head.

"I just see myself as the Godfather, walking down my backyard path into my own little vineyard," said Gorny, an architect who plans to convert two acres of trees and brush into rows of grapes. "All of us have traveled to Italy and France and have seen the lush planted landscapes. We want to bring that look home with us."

Gorny hopes his vineyard will re-create a sense of four seasons from his New Jersey boyhood.

"Vines die every winter," he says. "They have gnarled branches like crosses. Then in the spring they fly back to life. They provide you with beautiful greenery and produce fruit as well."

The Barleys' decision to uncork their own California vintage came about after their decorator spotted a magazine ad touting maintenance-free boutique vineyards.

Now, every day before she heads to work at a local bank, Diane Barley looks out her back window to marvel at the beauty of her grapes.

She recalled the day, weeks after the vines were planted this spring, when she drove home and saw the immature plants suddenly sprouting in their protective blue growing tubes.

"They looked like little blue soldiers marching up the hill," she said, surveying a backyard scene that includes a rock-hewn hot tub and rows of surrounding vines. "They were simply elegant."

Powers said he takes some ribbing for his new job.

"People might poke fun at this, but I think vineyards are more in tune with California living," said the former Contra Costa County supervisor. "Agriculture is one of the state's biggest enterprises next to Silicon Valley. And I think people are going for a gracious look that makes financial sense."

Powers bought two acres in Martinez in 1995 and planted his vines even before he poured the foundation for his 5,000-square-foot house.

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