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Town Hall Coalition in the News
Wine country in California enters season of discontent

John Ritter
(USA Today, 11/1/99)

Longtime residents and conservationists say too many forested hillsides are being bulldozed for vineyards. Vintners say their opponents are guilty of hypocrisy.

Sebastopol, California-Sun-drenched valleys rippled with tidy rows of grape vines, two-lane roads snaking through hills and quaint towns, lazy weekend winery tours-that's what California wine country looks like in travel brochures.

But behind the country ambience, a messy battle is shaping up over the future of America's most famous grape-growing region.

Rising prices during a decade-long bloom in wine consumption have fueled an unprecedented expansion of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties, both producers of some of the world's finest wine.

The binge has come at a cost. The character of these two rural counties north of San Francisco is changing in ways that many people abhor. Developers have been carving more vineyards out of wooded hillsides and converting dairy farms and apple orchards to grapes at a dizzying pace.

The results have left conservationists and longtime residents aghast at the new landscape: redwood and oak forest ripped out, wildlife habitat lost, streams polluted, fish species threatened and priceless views scarred.

A movement is growing to rein in expansion. Last month, Sonoma County approved strict rules to prevent soil erosion and stream damage from new hillside vineyards. Napa County has had a similar law since 1992, but it started only recently to enforce it aggressively.

Now environmentalists want the counties to pass laws giving government the power to prohibit new vineyards, even on land already zoned for agricultural uses that include grape growing. "People know what a great place Sonoma County is, and they know vineyard growth into the hillsides will change that," says David Bannister, a member of the local Watershed Protection Alliance. "The industry is generally viewed as a good thing, but there can be too much of a good thing."

The campaign here goes against the grain of efforts across the country to preserve agriculture. Many laws protect farmland from encroaching suburban sprawl and shield farmers from nuisance lawsuits. But other than the outcry over giant hog-producing farms, there's nothing else akin to the move in wine country to limit agriculture, experts say. "I can't think of another type of agricultural use that's a target like this," says J.B. Rhule, a Florida State University law professor who has studied the legal issues in farm-environment conflicts.

Opponents of vineyard expansion are vocal, but the amount of support here is unclear. Growers resent deeply the idea of restricting new vineyards and consider it hypocrisy and ingratitude. Besides international prestige, the wine industry and the tourism it creates account for more than half the regions' economy.

"The grape and wine industry made Sonoma County what it is," says Dom Paino, owner of Rancho Salina Vineyard. "Apples didn't work, prunes went out, ranching went out. Now folks in the Bay Area want to come up here, have a home in the hills and keep everyone else out. Lock the gates."

The counties would be on tricky legal ground legislating what can be grown. The Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on agriculture as long as farmers still can make a profit using the land for something else. But growers here would argue that the thin, rocky hillside soil is good for grapes and not much else.

"Enough is at stake so local counties are inviting litigation if they unilaterally proceed," says Barton Thompson, an environmental law professor at Stanford University.

In a sense, wine country is suffering from its own prosperity-and geography. Grape and wine prices have soared in the 1990s; the average price of Sonoma merlot grapes, for instance, more than double to $1,882 a ton by the 1998 harvest. Studies confirming the health benefits of moderate wine drinking stoked demand, while a strong economy and low interest rates fueled more vineyard development.

From 1990 through 1998, grape acreage rose 60% in Sonoma County to 53,000 acres. Napa had a more modest 14% increase to 36,000 acres. Virtually all the expansion in both counties was on forested hillsides. The flatlands had been planted long ago. But in the wine business, hillsides are a double-edged sword: They produce the most flavorful grapes and the best wines; but they're harder to farm, and the risk of erosion and watershed damage is greater.

Meanwhile, a new industry wrinkle was hastening the outcry over vineyard expansion-boutique wineries. Rich outsiders who covet wine-country living were buying small spreads of 20 or 30 acres, planting grapes next to their new mansions and settling in. Longtime growers all have stories about the Hollywood entertainer or the Silicon Valley multi-millionaire up the road, "lifestylers" as they're derisively called.

Scores of inexperienced newcomers putting in grapes on steep slopes led to some well-publicized landslides and stream degradation. And the "viewscapes," as they're called here, were changing fast. A bare patch of cleared hillside amid the forest isn't a pretty sight, and those were popping up all over.

People caught off-guard

"The intensity of it really caught people off-guard," says Brock Dolman of the grass-roots Townhall Coalition, an opponent of expansion. "Maybe your neighbor was a forest, and one day the chain saws and bull-dozers rolled in, and they cut all the trees and took out the stumps and graded the whole thing, contoured off the mountain top. It's a scorched-earth operation."

Pete Opatz, president of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, says: "Some guy gets his view converted…I don't have an answer that makes him happy, except next time maybe buy next to a national forest."

The cleared patches eventually become green with grape vines, but the loss of woodland and wildlife habitat alarmed environmentalists. Researches at the University of California at Berkeley estimate that more than 1,600 acres of hardwood forest in Sonoma County were cleared from 1989 to 1998 and probably several hundred more since then.

'Industrial vineyards'

Feeling the pressure, the county board of supervisors named a task force on Oct. 12 that produced the hillside ordinance. It prohibits vineyards within 50 feet of streams and requires engineering plans to control erosion on the steepest slopes.

The growers went along-controlling erosion is good business, and they could live with the stream setbacks.

However, environmentalists want more controls on "industrial vineyards," their term for modern corporate operations that fence the land, work it with heavy equipment, sterilize the soil, spray for pests and deplete the groundwater.

"Because wine is king, the vineyard people are used to a handshake and a 'thank you' for being here instead of getting a critical eye like timber or mining or fishing or any other industry," Dolman says.

Changing industry

But the look of vineyards is changing, growers say, because they're being built for more mechanization, with recycled metal instead of wood to stake the vines. Opatz defends the trend. "What's more industrial, using recycled products or sawing down trees and pressure-treating the wood?" he asks.

Only a little more than 5% of Sonoma County is vineyards, a point that the grape growers says gets lost in all the rhetoric.

They also say that the vast majority who take good care of the land don't get enough credit.

So far, there isn't much middle ground.

Growers say the wine industry is being singled out when tougher land-use rules should apply to everybody.

Environmentalists don't disagree, but they see vineyards as the priority: Right now, nothing else is chewing up the forests.

Future of the vines

Growers say that a lot of developers rushed to plant vineyards before the county ordinance took effect. That expansion will slow down when the wine boom inevitably goes bust, they say.

Environmentalists note that wine has been hot for 10 years, and they see no reason for prices to fall anytime soon.

The industry warns that if new vineyards are denied, housing sub-divisions will go up instead.

Opponents label that a scare tactic; the county is capable of regulating both.

Lifestylers are skewing the economics and raising the stakes for everybody. They farm as a hobby, not necessarily for profit, and they drive up the price of the land.

Then, when the rest of the wine industry is forced to pay up to $60,000 an acre, protecting that investment with a 10-foot fence to keep wildlife from eating grapes seems reasonable, Opatz says.

What happens next is unclear. In Napa County, several growers have been prosecuted and fined this year for violating the erosion ordinance, and a task force is studying whether to toughen it further. Still, a Sierra Club lawsuit last month accused the county of lax enforcement.

In Sonoma County, the Townhall Coalition will look for candidates next year to challenge supervisors who're up for re-election and try to get an initiative on the ballot limiting vineyard expansion.

"It's hard to know what the majority thinks," says supervisor Paul Kelley, who opposes more restrictions. "There is a growing anti-agriculture sentiment. It's anti-big business, anti-corporate and anti-property rights.

"We're going to hear more noise, but I don't know what is going to come out."


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