Tag Archives: vineyard conversion

In California, conservationists face off with vineyard owners 

Alastair Bland, GREENBIZ

Kellie Anderson stands in the understory of a century-old forest in eastern Napa County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. To her left is a creek gully, a rush of the water audible through the thick riparian brush. The large trees here provide a home for deer, mountain lions and endangered spotted owls, while the stream supports the last remnants of the Napa River watershed’s nearly extinct steelhead trout.

“They want to take all of this out,” said Anderson, who sits on the steering committee of a local environmental organization, Save Rural Angwin, named for a community in the renowned wine country of the Napa Valley. She is studying a project-planning map of the area as she waves her free arm toward the wooded upward slope. “It looks like this will be the edge of a block of vines,” she said.

Anderson and two fellow activists, Jim Wilson and Mike Hackett, were visiting a property of several dozen acres that the owners plan to clear and replant with grapes, the county’s principal crop. The project is one of many like it pending approval by Napa County officials, who rarely reject a vineyard conversion project in the Napa Valley, a fertile strip that runs northward from the shores of San Francisco Bay.

In Napa County, neighboring Sonoma County and farther to the north in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, concern is growing among some residents, environmentalists and scientists about the expansion of vineyards into forested regions and the impacts on watersheds and biodiversity. In Napa, an aerial view reveals a carpet of vines on the valley floor, which is why winemakers hoping to plant new vines increasingly turn to land in the county’s wooded uplands. At these higher elevations, “about the only thing standing in the way of winemakers are the trees,” said Hackett.

“Napa is getting really carved up,” said Adina Merenlender, a conservation biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who began studying the ecological impacts of vineyard conversions in the 1990s. “We see it all over the western and eastern ridges — it’s been relentless.” The transformation of shrub, oak and conifer habitat into new vineyards threatens wildlife migration corridors, she said. “We’re down to the final pinch points,” said Merenlender, referring to narrow corridors that eventually could become functionally severed from the relatively expansive wilderness areas in the mountains north of Napa County.

Federal fisheries scientists also have expressed concerns that the wine industry is harming endangered populations of steelhead trout. The creeks flowing off the hills of Napa County are critical to remnant populations of steelhead and salmon, and biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) say the irrigation of vineyards has reduced stream flows and clogged waterways with eroded soils. “Extensive water diversions, groundwater pumping, and increased agriculture (vineyards) water use during the dry season have reduced the extent of suitable summer rearing habitat  … throughout much of the Napa River watershed,” NMFS scientists wrote in the Napa River chapter (PDF) of a 2016 report.

Read more at: In California, conservationists face off with vineyard owners | GreenBiz

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land Use, Water, Wildlife

Walt Ranch: Water concerns arise from Napa area vineyard’s plan to fell 14,000 oaks

Alastair Bland, NEWS DEEPLY

Residents are concerned that plans to cut down 14,000 oak trees to make way for grapevines will impact groundwater, fish habitat and climate change mitigation.

In the small community of Circle Oaks, California, a few miles east of the wine-soaked Napa Valley, residents are fuming over a wealthy Texas couple’s plans to cut down 14,000 adult oak trees and replant the cleared woodland with 209 acres (85 hectares) of irrigated grapevines. The project, opponents warn, will destroy fish and wildlife habitat, reduce the environment’s resilience to climate change, and drain groundwater reserves.

“They’re going to be using about two times the water our community uses,” says Ron Tamarisk, who has lived in the small town of Circle Oaks with his wife, Nancy, since the 1960s. Tamarisk says the community’s wells have never run dry before, but locals are concerned the proposed vineyard will deplete their supply.

“This is going to dewater Milliken Creek,” says Chris Malan, who lives in a rural unincorporated area just east of the city of Napa and very close to the project site. She is referring to a stream that feeds Milliken Reservoir, from which the city of Napa receives water.

The couple behind the project, Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, are already well established in the local wine industry. Craig Hall, who has led a career in Texas as a real estate developer, told Dallas News in 2014 that he expected to sell as much as $50 million in wines in 2015, mainly through the couple’s Hall and Walt wine labels. Now, he and his wife’s new project, first introduced in 2006, is on the verge of becoming reality. The proposal to expand their Walt Ranch vineyard was approved in December by Napa County’s board of supervisors.

Locals are outraged by the county’s lenience toward the wine industry in general, which many sources claim exerts political influence over county decision making.

“If this project goes through, it establishes a precedent that a rich newcomer can come in and get their way,” says Randy Dunn, a resident of the small town of Angwin, in the hills northeast of Napa. Dunn is also a winemaker. He grows 35 acres of grapes, mostly cabernet, and says he felled a single oak tree to plant his current vines in the mid-1990s.

The Walt Ranch developers initially planned to cut down almost 30,000 trees. They downsized the plan last year in response to general opposition and to questions about the legality of how the new vines would be irrigated. There was talk for a time of pumping in water from another watershed entirely, that of Putah Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.

Read more at: Water Concerns Arise from Napa Area Vineyard’s Plan to Fell — Water Deeply

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land Use, Water

Op-Ed: The promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh

Jeffrey W. Holtzman, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County General Plan’s promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh is one step closer as county officials consider measures to help make the promise a reality. The challenge is whether we as a community have the foresight and political will to protect one of our most sensitive wetlands against the intense wave of vineyard and winery development while still maintaining a healthy and hearty wine industry.

Sonoma County has the capability to meet this challenge because there are tens of thousands of acres appropriate for growing grapes that are not in sensitive wetlands and we have a community commitment to an environmental ethos that values sustainability and sound planning.

The wetlands zone emanating along either bank of Atascadero Creek in the Sebastopol and Graton area is one of only a handful of freshwater marshes recognized in the general plan as important biotic zones. Wetlands are essential in order to manage floods, reduce pollution, recharge aquifers, and to provide a habitat for the flora and fauna that so enriches the lives of all Sonoma County residents and visitors.

Of particular significance is the prospect of restoring historical populations of endangered salmon and to encourage and nurture new nurseries in a habitat well suited for this purpose. Countless public and private organizations have spent millions of dollars and undertaken Herculean efforts to stave off the extinction of salmon in Sonoma County. Enacting the proposed changes to establish a Biotic Habitat zone in the Atascadero Marsh will support and strengthen community efforts to protect salmon rather than continuing to allow development that undermines these efforts.

The time to act is now, as a series of unfortunate, ill advised and sometimes illegal activities — driven primarily by intense pressure to develop the area into vineyards and wineries, have acted to degrade the Marsh. A permit granted here, an exemption granted there, and soon you have death by a thousand paper cuts unless action is taken.

Read more at: Close to Home: The promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh | The Press Democrat

Filed under Habitats, Water, Wildlife

Planning update for Sonoma County coast draws scrutiny 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Today’s public meeting runs from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Timber Cove Fire Station, 30800 Seaview Road.

More information and a copy of the draft plan are available online at www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/coastal.

Newly drafted guidelines for future development along the Sonoma Coast are inspiring interest and, in some cases, anxiety about potential policy shifts that some fear could alter their cherished coastline for the worse.

Land-use activists are especially concerned about broad language on the topic of agricultural tourism, marketing and promotion that they say paves the way for winery event centers of the sort that have sparked opposition inland, and they’re gearing up for a fight.

“We feel that the coast is a really inappropriate place for that to be happening — that the coast needs the protection that is already in the general plan, and that that language just opens up the coast to development by wineries,” said Sebastopol resident Reuben Weinzveg, a spokesman for Residents to Preserve Rural Sonoma County.

At issue is an update of the county’s Local Coastal Plan, required by the California Coastal Commission and meant to guide planning for the next 20 years in a roughly 86-square-mile area that includes the 55-mile coastline and inland areas along the Russian River estuary, the Estero Americano near Valley Ford and portions of the Gualala River basin. Agricultural uses account for 32 percent of the land-use designations in the area.

Read more at: Planning effort for Sonoma County coast draws scrutiny | The Press Democrat

Filed under Land Use, Sonoma Coast

Turning water into wine

Will Parrish, EAST BAY EXPRESS

The unregulated growth of California’s wine industry in the state’s coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

Along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, hydrologist and forester Jim Doerksen took me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled annual rainfall totals on his laundry room wall for more than thirty years. It was an early-spring morning, and fog had draped the redwoods and Doug firs in a ghostly gray on the north-facing slope above Doerksen’s home.

In the 2005–06 rain year, Doerksen’s gauge recorded 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the water level that year in Mark West Creek — a tributary of the Russian River, historically known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout — had declined by more than half.

The realization that his beloved creek was drying up, even in a wet year, remains clearly etched in Doerksen’s mind a decade later. As a former staff hydrologist for Santa Clara County, Doerksen is also keenly aware of what happened. He explained that the depletion of an underground aquifer, which feeds the creek, caused it to run dry.

“A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath this part of the Mayacamas Mountain range, dispensing water through pores … in the sub-surface rock,” he said. “When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — you end up with a dry creek.”

On the northwestern edge of Doerksen’s property, a sign strung to a tree describes this problem even more succinctly and identifies the culprit: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.”

Historically, much of California’s wine industry had been centered in the Central Valley. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the notion that the distinct character of a particular vineyard is expressed through the wines produced from it had become a popular notion among American wine drinkers. Grape growers responded by touting coastal ridgetop vineyards as boasting California’s best terroir. And so corduroy-like rows of grapes marched up hillsides in California’s northern and central coastal areas.

The growth of hillside vineyards was a free-for-all. “When it comes to agriculture, there’s no statewide regulation that prevents oak woodland and chaparral fragmentation and habitat loss,” explained Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management who has studied the conversion of woodlands to vineyards in Sonoma County. “It’s discouraging.”

In upper Mark West Creek, the conversion to vineyards started with the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County — named Pride — that installed eighty acres of grapes on a ridgetop where oaks had previously stood. The next person to plant a ridgetop vineyard in the area was Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs in New York City, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut the forests on his property to make way for a vineyard and winery.

Read more at: Turning Water into Wine | East Bay Express

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land Use, Water

California’s thirsty wine-grapes

Will Parrish, THE ANDERSON VALLEY ADVERTISER

In the San Joaquin Valley heartland town of Livingston, located along Highway 99 between Turlock and Merced, the United States’ most lucrative wine corporation, E&J Gallo, operates the world’s largest winery: a place where serried ranks of massive, 200,000-gallon tanks tower over the surrounding countryside, in a compound ringed by security fences.

Were California its own nation, its wine industry would be the world’s fourth largest in terms of revenue. Roughly 570,000 acres in the state are under the vine, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (which chairman, incidentally, was president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers for 13 years). And about half of that acreage is located in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which operate in conjunction with the area’s enormous industrial wineries.

Much of this grape-based alcohol production is enabled by California’s unparalleled water infrastructure, which transmits water from north to south, thereby turning the arid lands that supply Gallo’s oil refinery-like facility into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region. On the other side of the Coast Ranges, and further north, resides another thirsty portion where the wine industry places inordinate demand on its watersheds.

As the American wine market moved increasingly upscale in the 1990s, Sonoma County emerged as an epicenter of the “premium grape rush” due to its wide variety of favorable microclimates and soils, as well as comparatively low land prices vis-a-vis Napa County to the east. In keeping with the prevailing market trend toward high-end varietal wines, a new division of the Gallo empire — Gallo of Sonoma — amassed a collection of sprawling estates in the verdant hills ranging north to south from Cloverdale to Sonoma.

The Gallo clan aimed not only to remake their company’s image; they were intent on remaking Sonoma County’s physical terrain in that image. Throughout much of the 1990s, Gallo’s fleet of D-9 excavators rumbled across the company’s vast tracts, steel mandibles akimbo, cleaving oaks and pines and Doug firs from their root systems. Gallo owns about 6,000 acres in Sonoma County in all.

Read more at: California’s Thirsty Wine-Grapes | Anderson Valley Advertiser

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Water

Judge dismisses legal challenge to Paul Hobbs vineyard

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A judge has dismissed a challenge to Sonoma County’s approval of the controversial Paul Hobbs Winery vineyard project in Sebastopol, potentially ending a long-running legal dispute between the vintner known for his luxury wines and community activists who contend the 39-acre development poses serious environmental problems.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gary Nadler on April 29 dismissed the claim by the Watertrough Children’s Alliance that the county erred in approving the vineyard conversion project.

The group argued that the county should have conducted a review under the stringent California Environmental Quality Act, given that schoolchildren could be exposed to pesticides from the new vineyard. Instead, the county used its 15-year-old Vineyard Erosion and Soil Control Ordinance for its review.

The case hinged on the difference between two words. The alliance argued that the project was a “discretionary” conversion under CEQA, but Sonoma County and Hobbs argued that the decision to approve the vineyard project was more “ministerial” and should be exempt from state law.

Nadler agreed with Hobbs and the county, ruling that the county’s actions — including ordering reports, choosing a consultant, inspecting the work and ordering changes — did not demonstrate the permit approval was discretionary.

Read more via: Judge dismisses legal challenge to Paul Hobbs vineyard | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use

Vineyard development levels off on North Coast

Bill Swindell,THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Ending five straight years of expansion, new vineyard development leveled off on the North Coast in 2014 as growers turned their attention to replanting existing vineyards.

Figures released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed there were 132,004 acres of vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties in 2014, a decline of 0.5 percent from 2013’s record-setting 132,697 acres.

More than 3,000 acres were not producing grapes — the most in three years. The vast majority of these vineyards are being replanted and are not yet mature enough to bear fruit. The flurry of replanting is the result of three consecutive bountiful crops, topped by last year’s record $1.46 billion harvest, which have given North Coast growers the financial resources to reinvest in their vineyards.

“There’s a lot of replanting of vineyards going on,” said Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar. “This has happened over the last several years.”

Sonoma County had 59,974 acres of vineyards, a 0.4 percent decrease from the 2013 record, according to the USDA. But non-bearing vineyards increased 13 percent, to 1,014 acres.

Read more via Vineyard expansion levels off on North Coast | The Press Democrat.

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use

Hobbs vineyard conversion headed to court

David Abbott, SONOMA WEST TIMES

Paul Hobbs is making news in the West County again, as, on the heels of a $100,000 settlement with Sonoma County over questionable vineyard conversion practices, a lawsuit filed against the winemaker and the county by a group of parents in the Twin Hills Union School District will head to court.

A hearing will take place on March 2 at 9 a.m. in department 17 at 3035 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa.

The lawsuit, filed in December 2013 by the Watertrough Children’s Alliance, alleges that the county failed in its oversight duties by issuing a permit for the transformation of a 48-acre apple orchard into 39 acres of grape vines.

“This is a major project and it should have a CEQA review. It’s a huge manipulation of the environment. Why shouldn’t it require CEQA?” WCA attorney Paul Carroll said. “It’s been applied to much smaller projects. Thirty-eight acres is a huge project right next to a school. Hobbs shouldn’t get a free ride.”

But the ride has not been exactly free for the internationally known vintner who has had his share of run-ins with regulatory agencies over several West County vineyard conversion projects.

On Feb. 2, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office announced a $100,000 settlement with Hobbs over a civil environmental complaint filed on May 28, 2014, focused on conversion projects that took place from 2011 to 2013.

Read more via Hobbs conversion headed to court – Sonoma West Times and News: News.

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use