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Published Friday, September 3, 1999

Chris Coursey/ Press Democrat

The phrase jumped, out of Sunday s Page 1 story about the rush to develop vineyards In Sonoma County before new planting rules take effect on Oct. 1.

"We didn't do enough to protect our forests and streams from these industrial vineyards," said Lynn Hamilton, former Sebastopol councilwoman and west-county political activist.
Industrial vineyards.

What has happened? It wasn't so long ago that vineyards were seen as pastoral landscapes, bucolic vistas, welcome alternatives to the march of subdivisions through the valleys and up the hills of Sonoma County.

Now, seemingly overnight, the rows of vines that define "Wine Country" are described as "industrial grape-growing areas" by a resident of Freestone in ihat same Page 1 article.
And the antipathy is spreading.

"Ten years ago, having vineyards around your property was considered beneficial," says Chris Benziger of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen. "But that tune has changed, definitely." Part of it can be blamed on the wine industry's phenomenal success. A segment of Americans always will resent big business and the wealthy people who control it, and in Sonoma County the wine business and its leaders are the most visible examples of money and power.

Part of it can be blamed on the sheer ubiquity of vineyards. Almost 50,000 acres of Sonoma County are planted in grapes, with a couple thousand more being cleared each year. When grapes go in, grassland, wildlife and often trees disappear.
And part of it is the industry's own public-relations missteps, from high-profile tree-cutting and planting on hillsides to this week's ugly incident in Sebastopol, where a dying man was asked to leave his home while the new vineyard next door was fumigated with methyl bromide.

"Agriculture needs to wake up to the fact that we are no longer in the saddle," says Ruth Waltenspiel, who with her husband, Ron, grows grapes and dried fruits at their Timber Crest Farms in Dry Creek Valley. "This county is changing."

But it hasn't yet changed completely. While relations are strained, there isn't an entrenched "us vs. them" split between city folks and farm folks in Sonoma County. And there doesn't have to be.

Still, some fence-mending may be in order. And perhaps the best way for the ag industry to mend fences is to open up some of its gates.

After pesticides and tree-clearing, the biggest beef the county's environmental community has with agriculture is the industry's opposition to trails. Led by Peter Pfendler and other Sonoma Mountain landowners opposed to public use of Lafferty Ranch, and represented by the Farm Bureau on citizens committees, the industry has delayed and watered down the county's long-running plans for trails and other outdoor recreation.
But farmers are by no means unanimous in saying "trails and agriculture don't mix." In fact, some believe that allowing the public on their land is the best way to soften the hard feelings forming in the community.

"We have to stop viewing 'the public' as evil hubcap stealers," says Waltenspiel, who grants permission to these who ask to hike and ride on her property. ''They are our customers." Allowing those customers access to the land on which her products grow generates good will for her business, she says.
"Our experience has been positive."

Benziger, whose vineyards abut trails at Jack London State Park, agrees.

"Instead of bunkering down, I believe our industry should be opening up the gates and inviting neighbors to see what we're doing," he says.

As the suburbs and the vineyards creep closer together, It becomes more importnat than ever for farmers to understand that hikers aren't looking to tear out their crops, and for suburbanites to understand that agriculture still is what keeps Sonoma County from becoming Santa Clara County.

Call Coursey at 707-521-5223 or e-mail

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