Sonoma County provides some of the best wine in California, but some people are questioning the environmental costs.
But do Silicon Valley wine connoisseurs really care? Josh Weeks, owner of the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse restaurant in Saratoga, which boasts one of the most impressive wine selections in all of California, says his patrons are more concerned with the experience of their meal and wine than pairing their appetites with activism.
“Even if a couple do know about [clear-cutting], it’s nothing that’s somebody asks about or mentions,” Weeks says. “I’m an experience-oriented restaurant. ... I’m not saying that if [winemakers] are fertilizing with baby seals that customers would still be buying it, but it’s not really a big deal.”
Conversion of forestland to vineyards is tremendously destructive, according to Chris Poehlmann, director of Friends of the Gualala River. The activity, he explains, is even more harmful to a forest than clear-cutting; planting a vineyard requires permanently or indefinitely eliminating the forest as well as the soil, precluding any foreseeable opportunity for second-growth trees.
The ecosystem from the treetops to the roots is annihilated as the stumps are bulldozed and the remaining forest detritus and topsoil scraped away, flattening the earth’s surface and readying it for vines.
“The forest is like a living sponge that slowly drains water collected during the winter into the streams and keeps fish alive,” Poehlmann says. “When you scalp these mountainsides and turn the mountain into a bald bowling ball, that effect is gone, and you have nothing but a biological desert.” Without the stabilizing effect of tree roots, rain water gushes down such uprooted slopes like rapids down a waterslide, and erosion can be severe.
But land-use and environmental lawyer Eric Koenigshofer, who is employed by the Preservation Ranch project, which, if approved, would clear 1,769 acres of second-growth redwood trees in the upper reaches of Sonoma County’s Gualala River for 1,100 acres of vineyards, says that careful management can amount to an overall benefit to local ecosystems.
Of the 300 miles of roads already extant on the Preservation Ranch site, the project proposes to put only 100 miles of them into use while reverting the other 200 miles into woodland, Koenigshofer says. Along the roads designated for use, the antiquated systems of ditches and culverts, which can exacerbate erosion, will be eliminated. The vineyards, he says, will be planted well within the slope-steepness limits defined by county grading laws.
While Preservation Ranch is 43 times bigger than the county’s largest-ever permitted timberland conversion on record—a 41-acre plot owned by Kendall-Jackson, approved for cutting in 1997— “it’s also the largest privately funded land-preservation project that has ever been put in place here,” Koenigshofer says.
Some environmentalists say that legal lenience toward the Sonoma County wine industry can be traced back to the 1970s, when the threat of suburban sprawl spilling off the Highway 101 corridor was staunched by amendments to county code. Those amendments gave agricultural lands legal precedence in the fight to survive. Today, that agricultural land has become mostly vineyard land.
But the outlook for forest conservationists could be improving in Sonoma County. The timber conversion ordinance of 2006 appears to have had an effect in slowing the crawl of vines into the county’s wooded hill country. From 1979 to 2006, 25 conversions of timberland to agriculture occurred, amounting to 21 acres per year. Thirteen of those projects occurred in the grape-crazy years from 2001 to 2006, but all legal timbering activity abruptly stopped with the new ordinance in place. No officials could estimate for Metro how common illegal timber removal is in Sonoma County.
Preservation Ranch is advancing along the lines of the law, but the fact that its size amounts to three times the area of all Sonoma County timberland ever converted into agriculture—573 acres—strikes dread in conservationists.
“In the old days, farming meant growing food or fiber, things to be eaten or things to be turned into clothing,” observes Stephen Fuller-Rowell, a co-founder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition. “Now, a main product of farming here is alcohol.”
Josh Koehn contributed to this report.