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Nature in a Bottle

Spring 2005

by Gordy Slack, California Wild, The Magazine of the CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

"It is alive, growing, gaining complexity as it ages," says Maya, the
sympathetic waitress in Sideways, Alexander Payne's oenophiliac comedy.
She's explaining why she adores good wine and, in particular, why she
loves the obsession-inducing, cult-status varietal known as pinot noir.
In it, Maya says, she can sense the place where the grapes grew, the
rain drenching the fruit, the sun warming it, the loamy and fragrant
soil, the cool coastal fog rolling in over steep hills at night: in
short, the entire terroir, as it is known in the wine world. The notion
of terroir-that wine made from the grapes of an extraordinary place
would be fragrant and delicious in ways that correspond somehow to the
qualities of that place-is a seductive one.

Unless you're a hunter or a mushroom collector, it can be difficult to
find intimate yet wholesome ways to actively engage with beautiful
earthy places in this leave-only-footprints era. That's especially true
if you'd rather not go outside. But sipping the essence of a place,
drinking it right into your body, is pretty intimate. And, on the
surface, pretty wholesome.

Beneath the skin, however-leaving aside the intriguing scientific
question of whether a place can actually be tasted in a wine-the problem
with cultvarietals is that an increasing number of grape growers are
mutilating the terrain in order to bottle terroir.

In pursuit of perfect grapes-or at least the most salable ones-and
bargain real estate, specialty growers are heading into more remote and
wild areas. There they are damaging or out-and-out destroying the very
habitats whose qualities they so obsessively seek.

For example, steep and higher elevation land had previously been
considered out of bounds for winegrowers, because such land tends to be
remote, relatively ecologically intact, and vulnerable to erosion. Yet a
study by University of California, Berkeley conservation biologist Adina
Merenlender shows that in Sonoma County alone, a quarter of the
vineyards developed since 1990 were put on slopes steeper than ten
degrees, and about 40 percent were put in above 100 meters in elevation.
This is a steep increase from the previous decade, when less than six
percent of the vineyards established were on such hilly ground, and only
about 18 percent were above 100 meters.

New technologies, new tastes, and new economic pressures have made
uplands increasingly attractive to grape growers. And unlike lowland
areas, which had often been cleared decades before for other, less
glamorous kinds of agriculture, the new vineyards are often built on
wildlands: oak woodlands, redwood forest, riparian habitat, and chaparral.

Their conversion to a grape monoculture brings with it a cluster of
environmental problems, says Merenlender, including increased soil
erosion, habitat fragmentation, native species destruction, wildlife
migration blockage, the drawing down of water resources to hydrate
vines, and, of course, habitat loss.

Skagg's Spring Road is narrow, treacherous in places, and absolutely
glorious. The road passes through oak woodlands and chaparral heading
west from Healdsburg, in northern Sonoma County, and into the Coastal Range.

The day I drove it in late January, some of the steep wooded valleys
were filled with fog, and giant oaks seemed to float, ghostlike, above
the road. It is a region of intensely delineated microclimates, however,
and the verdant grassland of a neighboring fogless valley was vivid.
Passing westward from the Russian River watershed into the Gualala
River's, the oak woodland and chaparral gives way to Douglas fir and

This is mountain lion country, wild, craggy, and pristine looking. But
it is a landscape hanging very much in the balance, says local resident
and botanist Peter Baye, who lives seven miles from the coast in
Annapolis. The region, he says, is "teetering between forest and river
recovery, and rapid, massive agricultural conversion." It's been logged
intensively twice, first in the late 1800s, when Douglas fir and redwood
were sent down the coast to build San Francisco, and again after World
War II, when new logging technologies enabled the cutting of big trees
on steep slopes.

But in the past half century, much of the forest has grown back. And the
main waterway in the region, the free-flowing Gualala River where Jack
London preferred to cast his line, has made broad strides toward
recovery from the sedimentation, increased temperatures, and loss of
fish populations due to logging.

So when renowned winemaker Kendall-Jackson bought acreage up here five
years ago and described this part of northern Sonoma County as an
excellent district for pinot noir, wildland restoration activists like
Baye and Chris Poehlman saw it as the kiss of death. "These guys can be
absolute fanatics, willing to do anything to get the perfect grape, as
if it's the only thing that matters," says Poehlman, who moved up here
from Berkeley a decade ago. Poehlman is on the steering committee of the
Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR), which is trying to get the
California Department of Forestry to take the environmental impacts
posed by vineyard conversions seriously. He likes good wine, even pinot,
but he thinks some things matter even more. One of them is the
ecological integrity of these recovering forests and the Gualala River.

Poehlman said hello to a stranger driving an SUV on his road a couple of
years ago and was surprised to learn that he was a new neighbor, a
lawyer from Las Vegas, and an enthusiastic would-be amateur grower of
pinot. He had put in an application to the California Department of
Forestry (CDF) to clear cut 25 acres of redwood forest and put in
grapes. There are dozens of other conversions slated to go in this
watershed, three of them within a mile of Poehlman's property.

One project is backed by Artessa, a winery owned by Codorniu of Spain,
the largest winery in the world. Two years ago, Artessa applied for a
permit to cut down 114 acres of forest near here. Though they have since
reduced that project to 64 acres, it could still significantly increase
sedimentation in the river, reducing the amount of water available to
the recovering but still desperate coho and steelhead. Add pesticides
from vineyard runoff, says Baye, and the impact would be significant.

Converting redwood forest to vineyard takes some doing. First, the trees
are cut, their roots extracted, and about four feet of soil is scraped
off the surface. Mold poses a particular danger to grapes, and conifer
forests contain all kinds of threatening fungi and bacteria that need to
be purged with herbicides and fungicides. Then the acid in the soil is
neutralized with the addition of a lot of lime. Finally, the newly
planted vines are fenced to keep deer and other unwelcome animals out.
In effect, the native terroir, the ostensible raison d'etre for the
entire enterprise, is annihilated.

In November 2004 the Sierra Club and FoGR filed a suit against the CDF
for approving three of the conversion applications without requiring
environmental impact reports (EIRs) from the applicants. All of them are
located close together along the Little River, a tributary of the
Gualala. Right now the vineyard projects are on hold until the case is
decided, which will likely be this spring, says Poehlman.

"If environmental reviews are actually conducted," says Dave Jordan,
also a member of FoGR, "I don't see how they could find no significant
environmental impact. They're cutting down biodiverse redwood forest and
planting a monocrop. How could that have 'no significant environmental
impact,' the standard required by CDF for allowing conversions?"

If there were just one 25-acre conversion, the watershed could handle
it, says Poehlman. And that is the way CDF has traditionally been
evaluating these projects-one at time. "But put dozens of these little
conversions in and, from an environmental perspective, it's a definite
loss. The cumulative impact would be devastating," he says. Tens of
thousands of acres of vineyards are now being proposed or planned for
these hills. Much of that is traceable back to their designation, by
Kendall-Jackson, as a terroir perfect for pinot noir.

Meanwhile, vintners are searching for the perfect grape in other wild
parts of the state as well. In southern Lake County, for instance, a new
vineyard operator just got permission to cut down 109 acres of native
blue oaks and replace them with grapes. Because they are merely oaks,
considered a non-commercial tree by the Department of Forestry, no EIR
is required. A group of neighbors and environmentalists is suing the
county on the grounds that the conversion will alter the hydrology of
the area and warrants a full EIR. The case will not be heard until May.
In the meantime, the vineyard developer is free to cut down the
approximately 1,100 oaks and will likely do so when the winter rains end.

I'll never hear "oaky" applied to wine again without thinking of these
trees. Oak woodlands are particularly vulnerable to vineyard conversion.
Unlike redwoods and other timber trees, no government agency regulates
their destruction. Yet, according to Mills College botanist Bruce
Pavlik, oak woodlands may be the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems in
California, providing critical habitat for approximately 2,000 plants,
more than 100 birds, 60 mammals, 80 amphibians and reptiles, and 5,000
insect species.

Chris Malin is a well-known environmentalist in Napa. From her home high
on Atlas Ridge she has worked for years for greater environmental
regulation of vineyard conversions and greater monitoring of their
cumulative impacts on the Napa River Watershed and throughout the state.
She watched through the booming 90s as vineyards and their associated
trophy mansions overflowed the valley and crept up into the hills. And
Napa probably has the strictest conversion regulations of any of the
prime grape growing counties in the state. As once-wild lands are
converted to agriculture, and roads, water, and other infrastructure are
put in, the threshold for other types of building such as housing drops.
Malan fears such two-step conversions may become common in the future if
wine grape prices bottom out or the crops fall prey to some devastating
pest. In many rural areas, zoning regulations allow for agricultural
conversions but prohibit more intensive uses such as housing
development. However, Malan points out, zoning regulations are only
as good as the supervisors who make them. Supervisors get replaced and
zoning regulations rewritten all the time.

I asked Poehlman if he knew of any two-step conversions, where wildlands
had been first converted to agriculture and then to housing. He paused
for only a moment before answering, "How about San Jose? Santa Rosa?"
Or, Iadded, my hometown, Oakland.

Gordy Slack is a freelance science and nature writer and a California
Wild contributing editor.

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