Tag Archives: vineyards

Here’s how big wine gets to avoid environmental rules in Napa

Alastair Bland, KCET

According to Anderson, vineyard managers frequently install drainage systems incorrectly, fail to plant required cover crops to control erosion, incorrectly place deer fences in a way that prevents free passage of smaller wildlife, and use pesticides illegally. She says erosion control measures often fail to work, causing loose sediment to wash into creeks. There it can smother gravel beds used by spawning salmon and steelhead, which have almost vanished from North Bay watersheds. Many biologists have pointed to vineyards as a leading cause of the fish declines.

In 2006, Napa County officials issued a permit for The Caves at Soda Canyon, a new winery in the hills east of the city of Napa. As most such project permits do, the document set strict limits on how the developer could build his winery.

But The Caves’ owner Ryan Waugh allegedly ignored some of these limitations. Waugh dug an unpermitted cave into a mountain, and hosted guests at unapproved ridgetop tasting patios. After county officials became aware of the violations, they ordered Waugh in 2014 to block off (but not fill in) the illegal cave, stop the unauthorized wine tastings and muffle a noisy generator.

Neighbors had complained about the generator’s din, claiming that Waugh had promised years earlier to connect his facility to silent power lines. They’re primarily concerned, however, about the winery’s impacts on local traffic and congestion.

County documents report that Waugh followed through on all orders to correct the violations (something neighbors, who say they can still hear the generator, dispute). Then, Waugh submitted a request for a modification to his permit, and in April, the Napa County Planning Commission voted to approve it. The new permit brings the unauthorized components of his operation into full legal compliance while also increasing The Cave’s annual production limit from 30,000 gallons of wine to 60,000. The decision is a win for Waugh, who has reportedly put his winery on the market for $12.5 million.

Neighbors say that laws don’t apply to people invested in Napa County’s influential wine industry.

“You can just drill an unpermitted cave and have unpermitted tastings, and just get retroactive approval from the county, and get more allowed production than you initially had,” says Anthony Arger, who lives nearby. Arger is concerned that The Caves’ enhanced use permits will lead to a dangerous increase in vehicle use on Soda Canyon Road.

The county’s decision to clear Waugh’s record while allowing him to enlarge his business illuminates what Arger and other community activists say is part of a countywide problem. They argue that Napa County officials, especially those in the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, collude with the wine industry, ignoring violations of local rules, to increase wine production and tourist visits at the expense of the environment and local residents’ health and safety.

Read more at: Here’s How Big Wine Gets To Avoid Environmental Rules in Napa | KCET

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

Sonoma County Winegrowers says its wines can be ‘100% Sustainable’ by 2019. What does this mean? 

Larrissa Zimberoff, CIVIL EATS

The world-famous wine-producing county has a five-year goal of certifying all its vineyards as sustainable—but with pesticides including Roundup allowed under the program, their definition of sustainable is controversial.

Wine is usually a fun topic, but in the Golden State, the fourth-largest wine-producing region in the world, it’s also big business: 85 percent of domestic wine comes from over 600,000 acres of grapes grown in California. Operating at this scale means the wine business must also consider land stewardship.

Two of the state’s biggest and best-known wine counties—the neighboring communities of Napa, which has more vintners, and Sonoma, which has more growers—are both working toward achieving goals of 100 percent sustainability within the next few years.

What does it mean if a vineyard claims its grapes are “sustainably certified”? Definitions of the term are wide-ranging, and, unlike the concrete rules of USDA Organic certification, few farming products are expressly banned, and there isn’t one comprehensive list of standards.

Both counties have been lauded for their progress—after Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) in 2014 launched a goal to reach 100 percent certified sustainable, the county has reached 60 percent certified, while Napa County is at 50 percent. But if you peel back the label, you’ll find controversy brewing.

SCW uses three defining principles to determine sustainability: Is it environmentally sound, is it economically feasible, and is it socially equitable? The topics covered under those principles are vast––water quality and conservation, energy efficiency, material handling, pest, soil and waste management, ecosystem, community relations, and human resources.

Despite the goal of having every grape grower in the county earn the certification, SCW is facing resistance from farmers who don’t want to be told how to operate, as well as growers and winemakers using organic practices who oppose the fact that others in their field can still claim they’re “sustainable” while also using the controversial weed killer Roundup (a.k.a. glyphosate) and other synthetic pesticides.

Of Sonoma County’s million-plus acres, 6 percent of available land—58,000 acres—is planted with grapes. Between 1,400 and 1,500 growers farm that 6 percent of land; 85 percent of those growers are family-owned and operated, and 40 percent are operations of 20 acres or less.

This means that if you grow grapes in Sonoma, you know your neighbors, you’ve probably been in the business for a few generations, and you pay dues to the SCW based on tons of grapes sold. Grape growers vote to assess their grape sales every five years, and the resulting money––currently about $1.1 million a year––goes to operating the commission. If you don’t sell grapes, or your winery uses its own grapes, you don’t pay.

In 2013, Karissa Kruse, the president of SCW, received an email from Duff Bevill, both a Sonoma grape grower and a 1,000-plus acre vineyard manager. “Karissa,” he wrote, “what would it take to get Governor Jerry Brown to recognize Sonoma County grape growers as sustainable, and to recognize us as leaders?” While Sonoma was an early adopter of sustainability, county assessments were all over the map, so Bevill’s question was apt. Kruse, who also owns a vineyard, thought, “Holy crap. How do I respond?”

Kruse first brought up the goal of 100-percent sustainability at an SCW board retreat. Dale Petersen, a grower from a multi-generational Sonoma family and the vineyard manager of Silver Oak Cellars, recalled: “She pitched it to a group of farmers and we looked at her and we looked at each other.

”The reception was lukewarm at best. No farmer relished being told what to do. Eventually the board of directors approved it, and officially declared the goal at the January 2014 annual meeting, which typically sees around 500 growers in attendance. Despite the overarching decree, countywide sustainability is still a voluntary commitment.

Read more at: Sonoma County Says its Wines Can Be ‘100% Sustainable’ By 2019. Is That Enough? | Civil Eats

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Sustainable Living

Calif. court rules against appeal filed by Sierra Club, others over vineyard permit 

John Sammon, LEGAL NEWSLINE

Two Sonoma County vintners received a judgment in favor of their proposed wine making operation when an appeal by the Sierra Club was turned back by the state’s 1st Appellate District Court of Appeals.

The court found in favor of the defendants Ronald and Ernest Ohlson, operators of the Ohlson Ranch, who applied for a permit to turn grazing land on their property into a grape vineyard. The Agricultural Commissioner of Sonoma County (commissioner) issued the permit after making a determination the issuance was a “ministerial” act, and therefore exempt from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) standards.

The commissioner’s decision was challenged by the Sierra Club, Friends of Gualala River and the Center for Biological Diversity, who asked for a writ of mandate, a court order to an agency or court to follow the law by correcting a previous action (issuing the permit).

Before the year 2000, grape growers in Sonoma County could plant vineyards without government review or permission.. Since then, new directives have been added, including submitting plans to address erosion controls, proper grading, drainage and other safeguards.

The Ohlsons filed an application in 2013 to turn 108 acres out of 132 acres of range land into a vineyard. The property included wetlands and marshy depressions but no trees or streams. Erosion was to be controlled by the use of anchoring grass, mulch, filter strips and cover crops.

Read more at: Calif. court rules against appeal filed by Sierra Club, others over vineyard permit | Legal Newsline

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

In wine regions, vineyards and conservationists battle for the hills

Alastair Bland, YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

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,” says 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 says.

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 that are now 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,” says Hackett.

Read more at: In Napa Valley, Vineyards and Conservationists Battle for the Hills – Yale E360

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

How California eradicated an invasive grapevine moth

Weston Williams, THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

Since 2009, California farmers and agricultural officials of California have been at war with the European grapevine moth. The invasive species threatened the region’s massive wine and grape industry and threatened to throw off the balance of the local ecosystem.

But now, after seven years, the war is over. The moth has been declared eradicated from the United States.The European grapevine moth, Lobesia botrana, is native to southern Europe. The insect’s larvae feed on grape bud clusters as well as the developing fruit, exposing them to damaging fungi and other pests.

The appearance of the moths came as a surprise. In October of 2009, multiple moths and larvae were discovered in a Napa County vineyard, according to a 2010 press release from the County of Sonoma Agricultural Commissioner’s office. In response, several measures were put in place to combat the invasive species. The USDA and CDFA quickly quarantined the affected vineyards and began setting up traps to keep track of the moth population.

It is still unknown how the insects got to the US, but they quickly spread to other counties in California, and their numbers quickly climbed to a peak in 2010, when more than 100,000 moths were detected through traps. By that time, 52,170 acres of California vineyards had been put under quarantine, according to The Press Democrat.

Read more at: How California eradicated an invasive grapevine moth – CSMonitor.com

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Wildlife

Winemaker Paul Hobbs buys a prized piece of Sonoma Coast 

Tim Fish, WINE SPECTATOR.COM

Winemaker Paul Hobbs has purchased the 42-acre Goldrock Ridge Vineyard in the isolated hills of the Sonoma Coast. The sale price was not disclosed, but vineyards in the region sell for as much as $200,000 an acre.

Located near the village of Annapolis, the vineyard is about five miles from the Pacific Ocean and is set on a rolling hilltop at an elevation of 550 feet. Planted to 38 acres of Pinot Noir and 4 acres of Chardonnay, the vineyard previously sold grapes to Patz & Hall and MacRostie wineries, as well as Hobbs.

“Finding a vineyard like Goldrock Ridge is like finding a rare diamond,” Hobbs said in a statement, calling the purchase, “a pillar for our future.”

Considered part of the “true Sonoma Coast,” to distinguish it from the larger appellation with that name, the remote region in northwest Sonoma County is highly regarded by Pinot Noir producers. However, new vineyard development is scarce because of the rugged terrain, lack of water and environmental restrictions, making already-planted land appealing. (Hobbs himself has wrestled with vineyard development disputes in Sonoma).

The previous owner of Goldrock Ridge, CalPERS, the powerful state workers pension fund, sparked controversy in the region in 2012 with a plan to convert nearly 2,000 acres of timberland to vineyards. Since that deal fell through in 2013, CalPERS has been divesting itself from land holdings in recent years.

Hobbs owns numerous vineyards including Edward James, Ellen Lane, Katherine Lindsay and Ross Station in the Russian River Valley and Nathan Coombs in Napa Valley’s Coombsville area. In addition to his California brands Paul Hobbs and CrossBarn, the winemaker is an active consultant in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, France, Canada and Armenia

Read more at: Winemaker Paul Hobbs Buys a Prized Piece of Sonoma Coast | News | News & Features | Wine Spectator

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Sonoma Coast

Oak woodlands and wine

Eric Biber, LEGAL PLANET

A recent controversy highlights the impacts of wine industry on native California oak woodlandsA popular San Luis Obispo county winemarker is suffering a backlash in restaurants after press reports that the winemaker bulldozed oak woodlands to expand production—possibly in violation of a county land grading ordinance.

The dispute (as this Wine Enthusiast piece makes clear) is not a novel one.  There is a long history of winemakers in California converting oak woodlands to vineyards, with potentially substantial impacts on native species habitat.

Conversion of oak woodlands to agricultural use is, in fact, one of the areas where state environmental law does not provide much protection.  Conversion of coniferous forests is covered by the California Forest Practices Act, which imposes regulatory requirements on conversion of timberlands to other uses. Conversion of oak woodlands to other uses besides agricultural uses requires review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for conversion activities.  Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21083.4.  CEQA requires not just a public review of the potential environmental impacts of those conversions, but may also require mitigation of those impacts. However, there is an exemption in this CEQA provision for conversion to agricultural uses.

There are two main ways in which oak woodlands might still receive some protection from conversion to agricultural uses.

First, if federally or state listed endangered animal species are present, then federal or state endangered species protections might apply.  If state listed endangered plant species are present, then the habitat might also be protected from conversion—though there is some uncertainty about the scope of these protections, and whether agricultural conversions are fully covered by them.  However, many oak woodlands are not habitat for any listed federal or state species.

Second, if a local government imposes some sort of discretionary restriction on land conversion—such as requiring planning commission review of conversion of oak woodlands to agricultural uses—then CEQA would apply to that review process.  Of course, that depends on local governments imposing restrictions on land conversion to agricultural uses, something that varies greatly from county to county.  (For instance, San Luis Obispo County apparently does not protect oak woodlands.)

Oak woodlands are an important and threatened component of the natural heritage of California—and can be habitat for a wide range of native species.   Yet they have been significantly damaged by agricultural conversion, particularly for wine.  California native oaks—already under attack by a rapidly expanding disease epidemic—may face even greater threats in the future.  If non-medical commerce in marijuana is legalized by the voters this fall, we might see substantial expansion of marijuana cultivation at the expense of California’s oaks.    It may be time for the state legislature to look at stronger protections for them.

Source: Oak woodlands and wine | Legal Planet

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

Emergency ordinance to protect oak trees to be considered by San Luis Obispo supervisors

Lindsey Holden, THE SAN LUIS OBISPO TRIBUNE

The site where oaks and steep slopes were cleared for a vineyard is a 315-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road owned by Estate Vinyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co. — Justin Vineyards is one of the company’s brands.

Oaks are more than just trees in North County — to many, they’re a crucial part of the Central Coast’s delicate, drought-ridden ecosystem.

On Tuesday, that was the message dozens of farmers, residents and environmentalists delivered to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors as they protested the recent clear-cutting of hundreds — some speakers said thousands, based on their own investigations — of oak trees on land managed by Justin Vineyards & Winery, just west of Paso Robles.

Supervisors responded by taking the first steps toward adopting the county’s first-ever tree protection ordinance.

“There are people out there right now probably sharpening their chainsaws,” said Diane Burkhart, who presented the board with a petition signed by about 400 people requesting protections for oak trees.

The site under fire is a 315-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road owned by Estate Vinyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co. — Justin is one of the company’s brands.

After neighbors protested the tree removals and construction of a large water-storage pond on the property, the county issued a stop-work order on June 9. Officials said they’re evaluating potential penalties for grading violations, but not tree removal because the county has no oak protection ordinance in unincorporated areas.

After hearing more than an hour of often emotional public comments Tuesday from residents, supervisors said they were ready to move ahead after decades of false starts on oak ordinances.

Read more at: Emergency ordinance to protect oak trees to be considered by supervisors | The Tribune

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land Use

Restaurants yank popular wine over environmental controversy

Justin Vineyards’ bulldozing of hundreds of oak trees has uncorked some disapproval among San Luis Obispo County restaurateurs and wine fans, who are making their feelings known with their wallets.

The vineyard manages land owned by Estate Vineyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Company, and recently cut down the oaks to make room for more grapes on their 750 Sleepy Farm Road property, just west of Paso Robles. County officials ordered the company to stop work on June 9 after receiving complaints from neighbors.

Estate Vineyards will likely face consequences for violating county grading regulations, although San Luis Obispo has no ordinances protecting oaks in unincorporated areas. The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, a special district created under state law, also said the company violated three regulations, including not notifying the district prior to the tree removal so surveys for nesting birds could be carried out.

Some area restaurauters have decided to take matters into their own hands by taking Justin wines off their menus.

Big Sky Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo announced on its Facebook page Friday that it will no long pour Justin wines. Owner Greg Holt said the restaurant had previously served many different varieties of Justin wines but was offering only the winery’s cabernet sauvignon when he decided to remove it from the wine list.

Holt said Justin’s wines were always good quality, but he couldn’t continue to serve them after he heard of the oaks’ destruction.

“I’m a native of this area,” Holt said. “… I grew up with oak trees, and I know how long they take to grow.”

Read more at at: Restaurants yank popular wine over environmental controversy

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

Sonoma Creek watershed conservation grants ease vineyard erosion

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Replacing three culverts on his 28-acre Sonoma Valley hillside vineyard won’t boost the yield or increase the price of his merlot, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel grapes, John MacLeod said.

“It’s hard for me as a farmer to spend money fixing this,” he said.

But with a grant from the Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Resource Conservation District footing 75 percent of a $26,000 conservation project to reduce erosion on his land, MacLeod is quick to acknowledge the nonfinancial benefit.

“It makes us better stewards of the land,” he said, standing amid the 20,000 vines planted since MacLeod’s family bought the ranch along Sonoma Creek in 1974.

MacLeod Family Vineyards is one of four Sonoma Valley vineyards that has qualified for a total of $250,000 in grants funded by the Coastal Conservancy aimed at improving water quality in Sonoma Creek. The other three are Jack London Vineyard, Wildcat Mountain Vineyard and Santo Giordano Vineyard.

The local resource district has an additional $663,850 in grant funds authorized by the State Water Resources Control Board available to vineyards in the 170-square-mile Sonoma Creek watershed that extends roughly from Kenwood to San Pablo Bay.

The watershed is a “high priority” for remedial projects because Sonoma Creek, which flows 33 miles from its headwaters in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park to the bay, is designated by the state and federal government as impaired by excess sediment, said Valerie Minton, program director at the Sonoma RCD.

Sediment washed into Sonoma Creek, an important stream for steelhead trout, settles in gravel beds, potentially suffocating eggs and filling in pools where juvenile fish must spend the summer, she said.

Read more at: Sonoma Creek watershed conservation grants ease vineyard erosion | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Water, Wildlife