Finding a Niche in Wine Country
July 1, 2006
Resting within the 1,050,000 acres of Northern California's Sonoma County are 58,665 acres of vineyard lands, home to 191 wineries and more than 1,100 grape growers. One of these passionate grape growers is Ray Carlson, PLS, president and founder of Ray Carlson & Associates Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif. With his unique background as both a surveyor and grape grower, Carlson understands and provides for the needs of his region's niche industry.
"Sonoma County is wine country," Carlson says, adding that his firm's main clients are rural property owners. He and his team offer this distinctive clientele of vineyard owners a combination of superior positioning services and deliverables that can be used to market their lands and products. Carlson's staff currently includes three licensed surveyors, three LSITs, two title researchers, three GIS professionals, two CAD drafters, two field crewmembers, one financial officer and one administrator. Carlson says he "realized that GPS and GIS go together" when the technologies began to emerge. He's used that mindset to stay at the forefront of the surveying profession and to successfully market his firm's services to his local clients. Ray Carlson & Associates has carved a niche in the surveying and mapping profession while serving its community.
The GPS and GIS ToolboxCarlson & Associates owns three levels of Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) GPS equipment-handheld (GeoXT), mapping grade (Pro XR) and survey grade (5800 enabled with VRS)-allowing the team to customize the right tool and level of data needed for each individual job. The firm's workstations are networked with Microsoft products, and the GIS staff uses ESRI (Redlands, Calif.) ArcGIS 9.1 with Spatial Analyst and 3D Analyst extensions. Stu Righter, LSIT, GPS specialist, works closely with Walter Moody, GIS manager, to integrate the firm's GPS data and GIS databases.
"GIS is just a tool like CAD or GPS," Moody says. "It happens to have a great deal of power, but there is a perception that GIS requires a certain accuracy or is used only for certain types of jobs. I am continually reminding clients as well as surveyors in-house that a GIS is as accurate as the information you put in. We are starting to see the need for more accurate locations to attach data to. This is where surveyors have the opportunity to provide the service they are best-suited to provide: accurate locations in a particular projection and coordinate system."
The firm maintains access to a wide variety of base mapping and GIS data. It subscribes to Parcel Quest (Folsom, Calif.) and Data Tree's (Santa Ana, Calif.) DocEdge.com service for instant, online access to a wide variety of land records. "There's a lot of GIS data out there," Moody says, mentioning a few examples such as assessors' parcels and digital orthophotography (horizontally corrected aerial images). He continues, "This is base mapping data that we provide to our surveyors, who then go out and collect survey-grade data on a site."
Carlson paid $5,000 to buy the county's orthophotography and has found the investment to be invaluable during the planning stages of projects. "If a client calls in, I have in my computer the data for the county surrounding me," he says.
Understanding Grape GrowersBecause Carlson is a grape grower himself, he is in tune with the needs of the vineyard owners. Industry outsiders are generally not aware of how exacting and demanding the requirements are for grape-growing and wine-making. "One of the specific needs in our area is [being able to meet] the county requirements for slope gradients and allowable slopes," Righter explains. "The county doesn't want too many hillsides slipping away and too much terracing." Terracing is an agricultural technique that creates levels of flat plains, which look like steps, so that crops can be grown on steep terrain. Because many of the older vineyards are on very steep slopes, the county now requires erosion plans for certain slopes.
Carlson and his crew provide vineyards with detailed elevation reports and slope analyses. "We can give the wineries information [on slope gradients] from [digital terrain] modelings, contours and from public records," Righter says. This information provides grape growers the information they need to design and plan in advance how to plant. But slopes and terracing are only one aspect of the strict regulations involved with grape growing; additional regulations require vineyard owners to accurately identify the areas where their grapes are grown.
Tracking Each and Every GrapeWhen it comes to mapping and tracking the areas where grapes are grown, surveying services become even more important. To learn more about the data management needs of vineyards, Carlson and Moody have attended seminars for grape growers. One essential piece of locational information for vineyard owners is the appellation in which their grapes are grown. An appellation is a codified region in which a grape grower is authorized to identify and market his or her grapes.
"Within Sonoma County, there are a number of appellations," Righter says, noting that the drivers of the different regions are the area's microclimates, which produce "any imaginable combination of temperature and humidity." Righter explains that the North Bay area is rich in microclimates, and although the general habitat is Mediterranean with warm sunny days and cool evenings, "it might be 20 degrees or more different in temperature [on the coast] from just a few miles inland."
It is these microclimate-driven appellations that are, according to Righter, "one of the reasons why it's very important to satisfy the needs of the wineries and grape growers. We have real-world coordinates for the vineyard regions. We can pinpoint through aerial photography and other resources the vineyard locations for individual wineries."
Wineries want their products to be as specific as possible, and if they accept grapes from different areas in the county, it becomes very important for them to track the grapes they are using to make wine. In addition, wineries must comply with the regulations for wine labels stipulated by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
"We get a lot of questions from grape growers about what appellation they're in," Moody says, "especially when someone goes to make a bottle of wine and they're not sure." Ray Carlson & Associates can provide this information to clients because it has accurately mapped all the TTB-authorized appellations in its region. This information also plays a role in property sales and values. "If someone's deciding where to buy [land], they may think, "If I can grow or buy in this region, it will be more profitable for me,'" Moody says. In addition, new appellations are regularly created; Ray Carlson & Associates is involved in mapping and documenting these new specialized regions.
To perfect their grape-growing techniques, vineyard owners often want locational information that specifies much more than the appellation. Righter calls this the "whole concept of tracking the individual grapes." Particularly, vineyard owners want to know each individual block where the grapes come from. "We use survey-grade [GPS] to identify the individual vine from an aerial photo, getting down to the foot," Righter says. He continues, "And believe me, these folks believe in this! If they track it, the results will say that one particular vineyard or even one particular block produces better wine."
The vineyard owners identify the various factors affecting each block of their land, such as sun, climate and soil, to reproduce those conditions for better grape-growing. "You can't determine the best blocks unless you can track it," Righter says. "We offer real-time, real-space, reproducible data for tracking this information."
Pretty-picture DataData flow of the vineyards isn't the only service that Carlson & Associates provides. They have also honed their ability to create marketing maps for the local wineries. "There's a lot of wineries out there, and they need to distinguish themselves with their own personal story," Moody says. To sell their wares, wineries want to show buyers where all their grapes come from. Righter says that vineyards want "posters and maps that not only accurately represent the feature on the ground, but also do it in a pleasing form."
Carlson explains that wineries appreciate his maps because his firm is "using real data-real-time and real-place data-not some cartoon that somebody's developed. By cartoons, I mean [other mapmakers] are not using real fixed data. They'll image the data, but it's not in true place. There's no reason why that data can't be brought into a GIS and fixed in position."
Ray Carlson & Associates provides that data to the client in the form of maps, marketing information and website material. For poster-like products, the firm uses special papers and plotters to achieve the quality and color that vineyard marketers desire. For websites, the company started out by creating PDF map deliverables. Now Moody and his GIS team are creating 3D video fly-throughs of vineyards as Google Earth applications. Moody refers to this as "another piece of informational eye candy" that attracts online visitors to a website. "I think this is really going to take off for us," Carlson says.
Finding a NicheFinding its niche within the region's wine-making industry has worked well for Ray Carlson & Associates. The staff appreciates the work that supports the local community, and the perks aren't bad either. "It's an enjoyable pastime to visit the wineries and sample the various wares," Righter says, adding with a laugh, "I just don't pretend to know that much about them."
The unique applications Carlson and his team provide have the potential to extend far beyond northern California. "Everybody out there needs to market somehow"¦ it doesn't have to be wineries," Carlson says simply. Moody adds that surveyors can develop additional income by researching what specific territories need to be located and mapped in their areas, such as wetlands, viticultural areas, endangered plants and animals, etc. The success of Ray Carlson & Associates in examining and meeting the needs of its local industry sets an example for other firms to follow-and could be fittingly toasted with a glass of Sonoma County wine.
Sidebar: Starting Out and Staying On TopCarlson started his own firm, Ray Carlson & Associates Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1976, five years after he earned his California license. "There have been some tight times," he says, recalling that in the early 1980s he had to scale back on his staff. "Now I'm up to 17 people working for me." Carlson is also proud of his company's history of adopting technology. "We had GPS in 1984," he says, adding, "I got into [GIS] before 2000." Carlson firmly believes the way to stay on top in business is to stay in the lead. "It will be beneficial in the long haul," he says.
Sidebar: What's in an Appellation?Experience the place in wines from Sonoma County and its distinct appellation regions. Alexander Valley combines warm climate and the influence of the Russian River to produce robust red and rich white wines. Chalk Hill combines rolling hills and warm, dry air to produce distinctive cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Dry Creek Valley combines rich valley soils and sunny hillsides with hot temperatures to produce distinctive zinfandel and sauvignon blanc wines. Knights Valley is nestled between Alexander Valley and Napa Valley, producing elegant cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay grapes. The Russian River Valley is cool and lush as Pacific fog floods the valley floor in the morning and sunny skies develop rich flavors in its distinctive pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. The Sonoma Valley with its rich heritage and diverse climate produces an array of classic red and white wines from its vineyards while the warmer hillsides of Sonoma Mountain produce silky red wines. Sonoma-Carneros and Sonoma Coast capture the cool ocean and San Pablo Bay breezes in their crisp pinot noir and chardonnay wines. Taste wines from each appellation of Sonoma County and learn the importance of place in wines.