in a Bottle
Gordy Slack, California Wild, The Magazine of the CALIFORNIA
ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
is alive, growing, gaining complexity as it ages," says
sympathetic waitress in Sideways, Alexander Payne's oenophiliac
She's explaining why she adores good wine and, in particular,
loves the obsession-inducing, cult-status varietal known as
In it, Maya says, she can sense the place where the grapes grew,
rain drenching the fruit, the sun warming it, the loamy and
soil, the cool coastal fog rolling in over steep hills at night:
short, the entire terroir, as it is known in the wine world.
of terroir-that wine made from the grapes of an extraordinary
would be fragrant and delicious in ways that correspond somehow
qualities of that place-is a seductive one.
you're a hunter or a mushroom collector, it can be difficult
find intimate yet wholesome ways to actively engage with beautiful
earthy places in this leave-only-footprints era. That's especially
if you'd rather not go outside. But sipping the essence of a
drinking it right into your body, is pretty intimate. And, on
surface, pretty wholesome.
the skin, however-leaving aside the intriguing scientific
question of whether a place can actually be tasted in a wine-the
with cultvarietals is that an increasing number of grape growers
mutilating the terrain in order to bottle terroir.
pursuit of perfect grapes-or at least the most salable ones-and
bargain real estate, specialty growers are heading into more
wild areas. There they are damaging or out-and-out destroying
habitats whose qualities they so obsessively seek.
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.
study by University of California, Berkeley conservation biologist
Merenlender shows that in Sonoma County alone, a quarter of
vineyards developed since 1990 were put on slopes steeper than
degrees, and about 40 percent were put in above 100 meters in
This is a steep increase from the previous decade, when less
percent of the vineyards established were on such hilly ground,
about 18 percent were above 100 meters.
technologies, new tastes, and new economic pressures have made
uplands increasingly attractive to grape growers. And unlike
areas, which had often been cleared decades before for other,
glamorous kinds of agriculture, the new vineyards are often
wildlands: oak woodlands, redwood forest, riparian habitat,
conversion to a grape monoculture brings with it a cluster of
environmental problems, says Merenlender, including increased
erosion, habitat fragmentation, native species destruction,
migration blockage, the drawing down of water resources to hydrate
vines, and, of course, habitat loss.
Spring Road is narrow, treacherous in places, and absolutely
glorious. The road passes through oak woodlands and chaparral
west from Healdsburg, in northern Sonoma County, and into 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,
the road. It is a region of intensely delineated microclimates,
and the verdant grassland of a neighboring fogless valley was
Passing westward from the Russian River watershed into the Gualala
River's, the oak woodland and chaparral gives way to Douglas
is mountain lion country, wild, craggy, and pristine looking.
it is a landscape hanging very much in the balance, says local
and botanist Peter Baye, who lives seven miles from the coast
Annapolis. The region, he says, is "teetering between forest
recovery, and rapid, massive agricultural conversion."
It's been logged
intensively twice, first in the late 1800s, when Douglas fir
were sent down the coast to build San Francisco, and again after
War II, when new logging technologies enabled the cutting of
on steep slopes.
in the past half century, much of the forest has grown back.
main waterway in the region, the free-flowing Gualala River
London preferred to cast his line, has made broad strides toward
recovery from the sedimentation, increased temperatures, and
fish populations due to logging.
when renowned winemaker Kendall-Jackson bought acreage up here
years ago and described this part of northern Sonoma County
excellent district for pinot noir, wildland restoration activists
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
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
Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR), which is trying to get
California Department of Forestry to take the environmental
posed by vineyard conversions seriously. He likes good wine,
but he thinks some things matter even more. One of them is the
ecological integrity of these recovering forests and the Gualala
said hello to a stranger driving an SUV on his road a couple
years ago and was surprised to learn that he was a new neighbor,
lawyer from Las Vegas, and an enthusiastic would-be amateur
pinot. He had put in an application to the California Department
Forestry (CDF) to clear cut 25 acres of redwood forest and put
grapes. There are dozens of other conversions slated to go in
watershed, three of them within a mile of Poehlman's property.
project is backed by Artessa, a winery owned by Codorniu of
the largest winery in the world. Two years ago, Artessa applied
permit to cut down 114 acres of forest near here. Though they
reduced that project to 64 acres, it could still significantly
sedimentation in the river, reducing the amount of water available
the recovering but still desperate coho and steelhead. Add pesticides
from vineyard runoff, says Baye, and the impact would be significant.
redwood forest to vineyard takes some doing. First, the trees
are cut, their roots extracted, and about four feet of soil
off the surface. Mold poses a particular danger to grapes, and
forests contain all kinds of threatening fungi and bacteria
that need to
be purged with herbicides and fungicides. Then the acid in the
neutralized with the addition of a lot of lime. Finally, the
planted vines are fenced to keep deer and other unwelcome animals
In effect, the native terroir, the ostensible raison d'etre
entire enterprise, is annihilated.
November 2004 the Sierra Club and FoGR filed a suit against
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
Gualala. Right now the vineyard projects are on hold until the
decided, which will likely be this spring, says Poehlman.
environmental reviews are actually conducted," says Dave
also a member of FoGR, "I don't see how they could find
environmental impact. They're cutting down biodiverse redwood
planting a monocrop. How could that have 'no significant environmental
impact,' the standard required by CDF for allowing conversions?"
there were just one 25-acre conversion, the watershed could
it, says Poehlman. And that is the way CDF has traditionally
evaluating these projects-one at time. "But put dozens
of these little
conversions in and, from an environmental perspective, it's
loss. The cumulative impact would be devastating," he says.
thousands of acres of vineyards are now being proposed or planned
these hills. Much of that is traceable back to their designation,
Kendall-Jackson, as a terroir perfect for pinot noir.
vintners are searching for the perfect grape in other wild
parts of the state as well. In southern Lake County, for instance,
vineyard operator just got permission to cut down 109 acres
blue oaks and replace them with grapes. Because they are merely
considered a non-commercial tree by the Department of Forestry,
is required. A group of neighbors and environmentalists is suing
county on the grounds that the conversion will alter the hydrology
the area and warrants a full EIR. The case will not be heard
In the meantime, the vineyard developer is free to cut down
approximately 1,100 oaks and will likely do so when the winter
never hear "oaky" applied to wine again without thinking
trees. Oak woodlands are particularly vulnerable to vineyard
Unlike redwoods and other timber trees, no government agency
their destruction. Yet, according to Mills College botanist
Pavlik, oak woodlands may be the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems
California, providing critical habitat for approximately 2,000
more than 100 birds, 60 mammals, 80 amphibians and reptiles,
Malin is a well-known environmentalist in Napa. From her home
on Atlas Ridge she has worked for years for greater environmental
regulation of vineyard conversions and greater monitoring of
cumulative impacts on the Napa River Watershed and throughout
She watched through the booming 90s as vineyards and their associated
trophy mansions overflowed the valley and crept up into the
Napa probably has the strictest conversion regulations of any
prime grape growing counties in the state. As once-wild lands
converted to agriculture, and roads, water, and other infrastructure
put in, the threshold for other types of building such as housing
Malan fears such two-step conversions may become common in the
wine grape prices bottom out or the crops fall prey to some
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
as good as the supervisors who make them. Supervisors get replaced
zoning regulations rewritten all the time.
asked Poehlman if he knew of any two-step conversions, where
had been first converted to agriculture and then to housing.
for only a moment before answering, "How about San Jose?
Or, Iadded, my hometown, Oakland.
Gordy Slack is a freelance science and nature writer and a California
Wild contributing editor.
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