Sonoma County has joined Lake County, the Lodi-Woodbridge area in Northern San Joaquin Valley and Mendocino County as one of the four wine grape growing regions in California to form mandatory-assessment commissions to fund promotion of wines produced from area grapes.

Together these mandatory assessment commissions will spend about $3.2 million annually to promote the wine produced from about 165,000 acres of grapes produced by a combined total of almost 2,000 grape growers. The monies collected also will fund research and education programs.

This combined acreage represents about 34 percent of the bearing wine grape acreage in the state and about 20 percent of the total state acreage. The only one of the four commissions that also will assess wineries is the one in Mendocino. Growers exclusively fund the other three.

These are the only mandatory assessment commissions in the state. However, there are strong voluntary groups with a Napa Valley vintners group and a grower/winery group in the Paso Robles area.

Lodi-Woodbridge Grape Commission is the oldest and largest of the four commissions. It was approved by local growers in 1991; represents almost 800 grape growers farming 80,000 acres and operates with a $1 million annual budget used for programs in marketing, grower education and viticultural research.

Lake County Winegrape Commission is the smallest of the four. It was formed in 1992. It represents about 135 growers farming about 8,000 acres of vines and has an annual budget of $330,000.

Both the Lodi-Woodbridge and Lodi groups were approved by local growers in the wake of the collapse of the California Winegrape Commission, which was voted out of existence after a brief and acrimonious mandated partnership between wineries and growers. The same legislation that allowed growers and vintners to join on a statewide basis also allowed for county or regional commissions and that was what growers used to form these four regional commissions, which assess growers on tonnage delivered to wineries to conduct the commission's business.

Wine grape growers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties started talking about forming promotional commissions as the wine business became more competitive and imports — especially from Australia and Central America — began taking a bigger share of the U.S. market with aggressive marketing campaigns. They approved commissions this spring.

Through member self-assessment, the commission is expected to raise $1.2 million annually to promote Sonoma County as one of the world's premier grape growing regions and to fund research and education against vineyard pests and diseases.

The Sonoma commission achieved an 84 percent voter approval.

“The grower support shown by this vote is tremendous,” said grower Duff Bevill, a key leader in the Sonoma campaign. “We grow some of the best grapes in the world, and we'll now have the resources to market and promote Sonoma County grapes and wines at a whole new level.”

Under the new commission, growers producing 25 tons or more of grapes will be assessed at 0.5 percent of grape sales beginning with the 2006 harvest. This is expected to generate at least $1 million in new revenue to promote Sonoma County wines.

“We want consumers to recognize the quality of wines produced in Sonoma County. The wine quality has always been there. Now with the means to promote that quality, the future has never been brighter for Sonoma County growers and winemakers.” commented Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, which will be replaced by the new commission. The association has relied on voluntary grower participation and funding for its $400,000 per year budget. The management staff of the SCGGA will remain in place at the wine grape commission, with Frey, executive director of the SCGGA, assuming the role of president.

The new Mendocino Wine and Winegrape Commission will assess growers and vintners $10 per ton to raise $650,000 annually.

Sixty percent of the 250 eligible growers voted in the Mendocino balloting and 88 percent of those approved creation of the commission. Ninety percent of the county's wineries voted and 82 percent of them approved the commission.

John Enquist, executive director of the Mendocino County Winegrowers Alliance, said the vote there “sends a message loud and clear that the county's wine industry is ready to significantly raise the level of promotion and marketing of its wine and wine grapes.”

Like the Sonoma grape growers group, the Mendocino alliance will be folded into the new commission.