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Town Hall Coalition in the News
The Grapes of Wrath
Patricia King
(Newsweek, 6/12/00)

A battle over the land in California's wine country

Lynn Hamilton didn't want any presents when she got married last summer. Instead Hamilton, 52 asked for donations to launch a jihad against the Sonoma County wine industry's "slash and burn" agricultural practices. Hamilton, who grew up in northern California's "Redwood Empire," has mobilized a protest group that includes singer Tom Waits, the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, aging hippies and activist attorneys. They've raised $20,000 to battle the vineyards. "This is the Redwood Empire. This is not wine country," says Hamilton. "There has been a horrible mistake."

The wine country hasn't seen this much drama since "Falcon Crest." And as always in environmental squabbles, there are two very passionate sides in the battle. The antivineyard forces note that winery acreage in Sonoma has increased 60 percent in the last decade, fueled largely by the soaring price for wine grapes. (The highest-quality Pinot Noir grapes now command $5,000 per ton.) The locals are equally disturbed by the way wineries have transformed the landscape. "The trees have to be hacked at, sliced and diced, chewed up, and their great roots burned," said a recent column in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "It looks life Tara after the Civil War troops sacked the place."

But the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association counter that the Redwood Empire is not exactly extinct. Sonoma is 56 percent forest and just 5 percent grapes. And only an estimated 10 percent of the vineyards--about 5,000 acres--are planted on gutted forest. The group admits that vineyards are not attractive when they're first planted. "It could seem like an invasion," says Jim Caudill of the Sonoma-based Kendall-Jackson winery. Still, some vintners are taking pains to minimize the damage. The Sonoma Growers Association helped work out an ordinance designed to prevent erosion on hillside vineyards. Kendall-Jackson dropped a plan to clear-cut a forest near Occidental and now boasts that it hasn't cut a tree in three years. And by the way, 82 percent of Sonoma County residents say that the wine industry is great for the area's quality of life.

But some wineries aren't great citizens. Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Holtzman says that in the past few years there has been a "dramatic increase" in complaints about illegal vineyard plantings. Some citizens have become vine-hating watchdogs. Libby Rossknecht, who lives on 2.5 acres near Windsor, Calif., called Hamilton to report that her neighbor felled 24 oak trees to make way for more grape vines on his 30-acre property. One 70-foot tree was more than 100 years old. "I just can't believe that anybody could cut down a tree that was so beautiful," Rossknecht says. Rossknecht's neighbor was fined $2,448 and may face litigation from the state. The trees may be gone, but the controversy will be fermenting for quite some time.

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