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Town Hall Coalition in the News
Wine leaders have new agenda, grape growers association campaigns to build, maintain values
Tim Tesconi
(Press Democrat, 2/4/01)

Responding to the growing backlash against vineyard expansion, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association is launching a campaign to improve farming practices and environmental stewardship among the county's 1,100 growers.

Viticulture industry leaders say it's a direct response to a change in the way vineyards are viewed in Wine Country, a change which began taking shape in 1997 with the first serious calls for a vineyard ordinance to protect hillsides.

Citizen unrest continued as the rapid march of grapes consumed trees and fruit orchards, resulting in the organization of the Town Hall Coalition in the summer of 1999. And most recently, a group called the No Spray Action Network has formed to fight forced spraying if there is an infestation of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, a vineyard pest that could wipe out vineyards if not controlled.

"The focus of this campaign is raising the consciousness of the grower community. It's getting our own house in order so that we can continue to grow grapes in Sonoma County for generations to come,'' said John Clendenen, a Healdsburg grower who is president of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association.

The Grape Growers Association has developed a seven-point list of values to sustain land and build a sense of community with neighbors. So far 80 growers have signed the values statement, a kind of grape grower pledge for environmental and community stewardship.

They agree to warn neighbors when sulfur spraying occurs and to use pesticides only when pests pose economic risks. They pledge to support their work force with ongoing training, competitive compensation and housing.

The rapid growth of the premium wine grape industry during the past five years has caused some county residents to question whether wine grapes are too much of a good thing. Wine is a $2 billion industry in Sonoma County, dominating the economy and defining the lifestyle.

But there is growing tension in Wine Country as the booming industry expands to overtake forests and oak woodlands in a county proud and protective of its scenic beauty. The county's strong environmental community views the increased vineyard acreage as a threat to the ecological balance.

The county now has 54,000 acres of vineyards, with about 2,000 acres of new vineyards added annually in recent years to meet the soaring demand for Sonoma County wine. Vineyard acreage represents about 10 percent of the 550,000 acres devoted to agricultural production in Sonoma County. The county encompasses a million acres.

Clendenen said the informational pamphlets being mailed to Sonoma County's 1,100 vineyard owners are an attempt to raise the standards so all grape growers are good neighbors and respected stewards of the land.

"We want to eliminate the things that show up on the front page of the paper when there are problems,'' said Clendenen. "We are telling growers to do the best possible job they can.''

The growers dispute the notion that this is simply a public relations campaign, noting that the pamphlets are for growers only and have not been publicly disseminated.

In a county where farmers account for less than 1 percent of the population, grape growers fear they could be regulated out of business by voters who disapprove of their farming practices.

"What's at stake when our neighbors don't understand our business? What's at stake is our business,'' the brochure warns growers.

The Grape Growers Association's brochure encourages growers to conserve water, to find ways to reduce the use of toxic pesticides and to respond to neighbors' questions or concerns.

Growers like Joe Votek of Loma del Sol Vineyards in the Sonoma Valley are held up as examples of good grape growing.

"My philosophy is simple: I pay attention. I farm responsibly. I walk softly on the land. And I try to be a good neighbor,'' Votek said.

The effort to make grape growing more compatible with the environment and rural communities is applauded by those who have been critical of "industrial vineyards'' and the ``monocultural expansion'' of grapes.

"I'm in favor of anything that leads to dialogue between grape growers and people in the community,'' said Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, which promotes sustainable agriculture.

Henson said the wine industry must listen to residents concerned about chemicals, loss of wildlife habitat and the lack of agricultural diversity as grapes command more and more land.

Clendenen said growers are under more scrutiny from neighbors and watchdog groups as the county's population and vineyard acreage expands.

The Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, which has 350 grower members, believes it must set the agenda so growers not only obey environmental laws but practice common courtesy in the communities where they farm.

Shepherd Bliss, an anti-pesticide activist from Sebastopol and a leader of the No Spray Action Network, said he will be watching to see if the pamphlet results in meaningful change or is just a slick public relations campaign.

"The value of this document is that the Grape Growers Association and the wine industry have set forth industry guidelines,'' said Bliss. "Growers can now hold each other accountable.''

Agricultural Commissioner John Westoby said it's good to see grape growers defining their position and explaining their passion for growing quality grapes.

"This brochure could really ameliorate some of the negative things being said about grape growing,'' Westoby said.



The Sonoma County Grape Growers Association has developed a seven point list of values to sustain land and build a sense of community with neighbors.

So far 80 growers have signed the values statement, a kind of grape grower pledge for environmental and community stewardship. The Grape Growers Values statement follows:

* Being considerate and courteous, reaching out to neighbors to keep them informed of vineyard practices and goals.

* Supporting our workers with ongoing training, competitive compensation and housing.

* Notifying residents adjoining our vineyards who want to know when we will be dusting sulfur or spraying and being aware of our possible impact on others.

* Using integrated pest management practices so that pesticides are only applied when pests pose economic risks. We choose materials that are effective, yet have low environmental impacts.

* Recognizing water as a precious resource and striving to conserve it, keep it clean and use it efficiently.

* Sharing our experience with our grower colleagues to ensure that all growers -- new and experienced -- are familiar with regulations and utilize best farming practices.

* Responding conscientiously if our neighbors have questions or concerns. Hillside Vineyard Ordinance / One Year Later


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Town Hall Coalition
6741 Sebastopol Ave. Ste. 140 Sebastopol California 95472
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