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Source: The New York Times
By: Kristine Shevory

9-5.jpgTHE GOOD LIFE Jay and Shelley Albrecht, in their yard next to a row of grapevines at Kiepersol Estates in Texas.

GARETH AND BARBARA GENNER assumed they would eventually buy a vacation home in Italy. They had family in Milan and enjoyed touring some of their favorite Italian wineries. It was a good way to keep their cellar in Atlanta growing with hard-to-find wines.

And then there was reality. While owning a house in Italy would be fun, it wasn't practical. They already had three vacation homes scattered across the United States, and didn't always have time to visit them that often. Italy would be an even bigger stretch.

Instead, they brought Italy to Georgia. For $1.2 million, they had a replica Italian villa built at Montaluce Winery and Estates, a new home and vineyard development in Dahlonega, Ga., about an hour north of Atlanta. The three-story house, painted the same tinge of orange as Tuscan farmhouses, is set among rolling hills of vineyards they say resemble those of Umbria.

"We bluntly wanted to recreate the feeling we had in Italy," said Mr. Genner, 49, a former managing director of an educational consulting firm and currently president of an Atlanta preparatory school. "Once you're there, you believe you're in Tuscany."

The housing market has soured, mortgages are drying up and the economy is weak. Second-home sales are at their lowest level in five years, according to the National Association of Realtors, and some builders are scrambling to fight off bankruptcy. But developers are finding that homes built around wineries or vineyards are still selling among wealthier buyers.

"The market gets more elastic when people think they're getting a once-in-a-lifetime moment," said Adam Ducker, managing director of RCLCO, a real estate advisory firm in Washington, D.C., that has provided consulting services for winery-home developments. "They're purchases of passion and not financial sense."

To many prospective buyers, wine represents an enviable way of life full of good food, healthy living and close friends and family. Growing grapes is seen as a way to attain that life.

"It's a lifestyle we're selling," said Rob Beecham, an owner of Beecham Builders, the Atlanta-based developer of Montaluce. "It's a lifestyle that everyone is missing. Very few people take time to enjoy life now."

Builders are turning to wine as a way to beef up home sales and make their projects stand out. Many second-home developments now come with community cellars, wine tastings and wine dinners. Some are wine-related in name only or use vineyards as landscaping.

Gary Scott, a developer in Washington State, revised plans for his 500-acre housing community after market research reports showed potential buyers were oenophiles. Out went a project centered exclusively around golf courses, and in came 30 acres of vines, a vintner's club, a wine cellar, wine dinners and an on-site sommelier.

"Golf was a necessity, but the pizzazz was that we were right in the middle of Washington wine country," said Mr. Scott, an owner of the Vineyards Resort in Wapato, Wash.

Even small landowners are using vineyards to sell homes. Tom Johnson, a former director of Ralph Lauren Polo store development, bought 41 acres with vineyards in the Finger Lakes region three years ago and built two homes out of restored 19th-century barns. He lives in one and put the other one, the Ericsson Barn, a four-bedroom house with copper countertops, antique wood floors and lake views, on the market for $1.25 million in July. Eventually, he plans to bring three other old barns onto the property and turn them into homes. Each homeowner will own a share of the property's 30-acre vineyard, called the Milo Vineyard in Milo, N.Y.

"There's something about living near a vineyard, participating in the community of winemakers without having to make it, that's incredibly appealing," Mr. Johnson said.

Ranchers and winery owners are also cashing in and becoming home developers. At Kiepersol Estates in Tyler, Tex., Pierre de Wet started carving out parcels from his cattle ranch to sell to wannabe winemakers and enthusiasts 10 years ago after he grew tired of the ups and downs of farming.

"Agriculture is a very, very tough way to make a living," Mr. de Wet said. "You make a living, but you never get ahead. Part of farming is to have an exit strategy. This is the highest value I can get for my property."

Mr. de Wet's cattle ranch has been transformed into "the land of beef and wine," a combination winery, ranch, bed-and-breakfast, digital recording facility and property developments. There are vintner dinners at the on-site restaurant, wine tastings at the winery and vineyards dotting his property. Homes are tucked into wooded lots of two to five acres, with prices averaging around $20,000 an acre.

AFTER growing tired of traffic and crime in Houston, Jay Albrecht and his wife, Shelley, bought a two-and-a-half-acre lot and had a four-bedroom house with a five-car garage built for $625,000. After months of shuttling back and forth between Houston and Tyler, they decided to sell their home in Houston and relocate to Kiepersol Estates in June. In the coming year, they expect to plant cabernet grapes on the acre behind the house.

"I got so sick and tired of Houston. I really wanted to have enough room to stretch out," said Mr. Albrecht, 47, chief executive of an oil and gas service company. "You've got to enjoy the slower pace of life one sip at a time."

Wine may be a good way to sell real estate, but it's not always a guarantee to quick sales. Patricia Kluge, founder of Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard in Virginia, carved out hundreds of acres from her 2,000-acre estate for private homes where homeowners could grow grapes and make wine. She now expects the 24 homesites, which start at more than $2 million, to sell out in four years instead of two. (She's sold three sites on Vineyard Estates at Kluge Estate Winery this year and expects two more to sell by the end of the year.) Mr. Scott in Washington State had to delay his construction schedule twice after banks reneged on their construction loans. Financing is finally in place and the groundbreaking is expected this month.

At Montaluce in Georgia, Mr. Beecham said sales were slower than he would have liked, but were still doing well. Lots are priced from $70,000 to $600,000 and homes from $370,000 to $1.35 million. He expects to finish the 400-acre project, which will eventually include a hotel and 300 homes, in five or six years. The sluggish economy doesn't faze him, though, because his custom-home building company caters to the wealthy and is still doing well. Mr. Beecham and his family have also invested their own money heavily in the $400 million project.

In a sense, Mr. Beecham is investing in his own future. He always thought he would retire in Italy or California, somewhere he could relax and watch his grapes grow. But instead of flying to Italy twice a year, he sees Montaluce as a place where he can go every weekend and eventually retire.

Big-name winemakers have also been drawn to pairing wine with second homes. Michael Mondavi, the eldest son of the vintner Robert Mondavi, is an investor in Aetna Springs, a resort in Napa Valley that had become rundown over the years. Plans for the 1873-era private club include a winery, hotel, restaurant, golf course, houses and vineyards. The sites, 40-acre plots with a potential for vineyards, will range from $2.7 million to $4.5 million.

For Mr. Mondavi, who had turned down 37 different projects since leaving his family's winery, Aetna Springs was a way to restore a private club he once enjoyed as a child. "This is something I could be proud of in 10 to 15 years and that would complement the valley," Mr. Mondavi said.

The Genners in Atlanta hope eventually to make wine at Montaluce, which also offers wine dinners, a resident sommelier who leads a "wine university" on Saturdays, and a program where residents can participate in the wine making process from harvest to bottling for $10,000. In the meantime, they spend nearly every weekend at the property, fly fishing, sampling wine and hosting dinner parties.

"Every friend who's been there realizes that you start relaxing after a few hours," Mr. Genner said. "Many of our friends invite themselves. It's not exceptional to have 10 people around our table."

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