Barry Shames isn't a vintner, but he is the proud owner of a vineyard, an 18-acre plot of merlot vines in Northern California. And if he ever feels like dropping by for a tour, he doesn't need to travel far: His vineyard is 100 feet from his back door, just across a tangle of cabernet sauvignon vines in his backyard.
Shames, 55, is a commercial builder who loves living around grapevines. "They're lush and green in the summertime, a bunch of twigs in the winter," and in late September, he said, the grapes become an intense, dark purple, "full and delicious looking."
Three years ago, he built an 8,000-square-foot, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house on 20 acres at Vineyard Estates at Ruby Hill, a planned community near San Francisco. Property owners there are allowed to run wine-related businesses from home, but Shames entrusts his sprawling vines to a local winery, which pays him an annual fee of $1,000 per acre for the fruit, along with 20 cases of merlot.
The novelty of the golf-course community may have begun to fade in recent years, but vineyard living is emerging as an alternative. The American fascination with wine has never been more intense - wine consumption increased by 25 percent or 142 million gallons between 2001 and 2006, according to the California-based Wine Institute - and new housing developments are appearing alongside or in the middle of vineyards across the country.
In the last three years, at least 10 of these developments have opened or broken ground in California, Arizona, Washington, Idaho, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, New York and Rhode Island, and several more are in advanced planning stages.
Some are built on or around existing vineyards, by vintners out to supplement their wine-business incomes and lower their property taxes. ("We're not doing this for poetry," said Patricia Kluge, the chairwoman of Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard in Charlottesville, Va., who is giving more than a quarter of her 2,000-acre estate to 24 private residences.) But others, like Ruby Hill, are created from scratch by developers who see the vineyards mainly as residential amenities and who leave the cultivation to residents or outside professionals.
At some developments, the vines are within view but out of reach of the residents; at others, residents are encouraged to set up their own vineyards and develop private-label wines.
First-time homebuyers in Viniterra, part of a planned community centered around a 12,000-square-foot winery near Williamsburg, Va., called New Kent Vineyards, will be offered their own casks of wine, about 60 gallons, personalized with their names and stored at the winery.
The properties aren't cheap. "Vineyards allow us to charge a 20 to 25 percent premium on the price of the land," said Lloyd Mahaffey, a developer and vintner in Eagle, Idaho. But most homeowners who grow their own grapes manage to eke out some small income out of their acreage, and even for those who don't, the pleasures of vineyard living seem to make up for the cost.
The developments are one of the latest versions of leisure-focused, master-planned communities, which were first built in the 1980s around activities like golf, swimming and skiing. A few years ago, industry observers say, developers began to recognize a desire for a wider range of leisure-theme options, and that was when vineyards started taking off.
Although cultivating wine grapes or watching others do it may seem an improbable form of recreation, it is only part of the total wine experience offered by these developments, which surround their wine-enthusiast residents with like-minded neighbors, and which typically feature activities like wine classes, dinner lectures and harvest parties.
"I can go to any country club and play tennis," said Tom Davise, a 58-year-old foreign exchange analyst who spent $800,000 in June on a 2,000-square-foot single-story bungalow at Trilogy at the Vineyards, a new 481-acre planned residential community in Brentwood, Calif. Davise and his wife, Anamae, bought the house after attending a wine and olive oil-themed event there a month earlier.
The community has a clubhouse with a demonstration kitchen for visiting chefs and sommeliers. Davise values the vineyard development's food-and-wine-based social atmosphere: Among other things, "you tend to find out more about your neighbors," he said.