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ATTITUDE ON GRAPE GROWING
published on August 25, 2006
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
developing his eight-acre Forestville property for vineyards,
winemaker Mac McDonald is being careful to preserve the land's
natural beauty while converting five acres of grassland to wine
McDonald and his family are preserving tall trees and thick vegetation
along a stream that meanders along the back border of the property,
an area rich with wildlife. "The trees, coyotes and foxes
were here long before I came on the scene, and they are going
to stay here," said McDonald, 63, who with wife Lil is the
owner of Vision Cellars. "I want to keep this place as natural
as we can. This land is our family's legacy."
officials monitoring grape planting in Sonoma County say McDonald
exemplifies a changing attitude about converting land to vineyards.
Increasingly, the mind-set is to work with nature, rather than
conquering it by bulldozing all the trees and leveling the natural
is greater awareness of environmental concerns today. Growers
are not forcing vineyards on property, they are letting the sites
dictate how and where the vines are planted on the property,"
said Gail Davis, coordinator of the Sonoma County Vineyard Erosion
and Control Ordinance, which is administered by the Agricultural
Commissioner's office. Growers, she said, are more likely to leave
large portions in woodlands than they did in the past. There's
a tendency to preserve the natural swales in the land, creating
safe harbors for wildlife and beneficial insects. "There's
been a huge change in vineyard planting," Davis said. "Everything
is much more scientific and technical than it used to be."
vineyard ordinance was adopted six years ago by the Sonoma County
Board of Supervisors following more than two years of often contentious
debate. It was born of the public concern over the unprecedented
planting boom in the 1990s, when the county's vineyard acreage
coined the term "industrial vineyards" to describe the
regimented rows of steel-staked vineyards that large wine companies
planted fence-to-fence on land once dotted with oak trees, apple
orchards and cattle ranches. The dramatic shift in the county's
landscape alarmed rural residents and environmentalists who demanded
regulatory controls on vineyard expansion.
Environmentalist Lynn Hamilton, founder and administrator of the
Town Hall Coalition, a grass-roots group formed in 1999 to address
vineyard expansion, credits the viticultural industry for making
great strides in sustainability over the past five years. But
she said the vineyard ordinance must be strengthened so some land
including forests is totally off-limits to grapes. She also wants
more regulations on the deep wells that are drilled to irrigate
vineyards, which she says affect surrounding property owners in
rural areas. "The majority of vineyards are environmentally
oriented and sustainable, but there's nothing to stop the bad
actors who are using practices that are not appropriate,"
said Hamilton, the former mayor of Sebastopol.
1990 and 2000 there were 23,200 acres of vineyards planted, bringing
the county's total acreage to 56,000 in 2001. In the planting
frenzy, vineyards were planted on erosion-prone hillsides, and
ancient oaks were cut down to make way for chardonnay and cabernet.
has changed as growers and wineries respond to public sentiment
and the market.
planting has slowed dramatically in the past four years, primarily
because of market conditions that have left grape varietals such
as merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon in oversupply. There were
2,700 acres of new vineyards planted in 2000. Last year, 800 acres
were planted, and this year 500 acres are under development. Plantings
in the past five years have brought the county's total vineyards
to 64,000 acres.
are better vineyards being planted today than what was happening
before the vineyard ordinance. The ordinance has created a process
that puts more thought and effort into vineyard design,"
said Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape
Davis said many of those planting new vineyards are adopting organic
or biodynamic farming methods, giving up toxic pesticides and
synthetic fertilizers. The desire to kick chemicals is born not
only out of a concern for the environment but, for many, the belief
that biological farming methods better capture the unique flavor
of the land. The quest is for quality wine.
are farming for better flavors in the grapes, which gives them
a marketing edge in selling their grapes or wine," Davis
said. She points to the vineyards at the Medlock Ames winery off
Chalk Hill Road in Healdsburg as an extraordinary example of environmental
Mulville, vineyard manager at Medlock Ames, uses sheep rather
than herbicides to control the vegetation in the organically farmed
vineyards. Geese and cattle will be enlisted as foragers in the
future. Grapes are planted on only 56 acres of the 320-acre ranch,
leaving much of the land in its original, wooded state. There
are wildlife corridors so deer, coyotes and other critters can
cross the land. "We take a truly holistic approach in combining
the wild with the domestic," Mulville said. "We consider
all of the land an ecosystem. If the whole property isn't healthy,
we can't have healthy vineyards." To that end, Mulville plans
to use Belgian draft horses, instead of tractors, to farm the
estate's vineyards. "The goal is to eliminate or minimize
the use of off-farm inputs like fossil fuel and to have a biological,
self-contained farming system," Mulville said.
While the Medlock Ames model goes beyond what most vineyards are
doing in Sonoma County, the wine industry generally is embracing
a more sustainable approach. Sonoma County and other wine growing
regions in California realize the industry's survival depends
on being good neighbors and responsible stewards of the land.
2002, the wine industry adopted the "Code of Sustainable
Winegrowing Practices," which is based on environmental protection,
economic viability and social equity for wine industry workers.
The goal is to make California the world leader in sustainable
grape growing and winemaking by 2009.
Even though setting aside land for nature costs money and reduces
income, it's part of the financial trade-off that most growers
make to farm in Sonoma County.
said progress is being made to ensure that vineyards and wineries
exist harmoniously with people both in and outside the wine industry.
The high cost of establishing vineyards, which can range from
$25,000 to $50,000 an acre, not including the price of land, make
wine grapes a venture for the truly serious or seriously wealthy.
"The costs have gone up so much a lot of people do a lot
of serious calculating before planting vineyards," said Davis.
can reach Staff Writer Tim Tesconi at 521-5289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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