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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Vineyards

Air Date: Week of

In California, the wine industry is booming. A robust economy and high demand for premium wines have growers rushing to develop thousands of acres of new vineyards. But as the golden grassy knolls and woodlands of the California wine country are being replaced with vines, the wine industry is experiencing an unfamiliar backlash. Sally Eisele (EYES-lee) reports.


CURWOOD: In California, the wine industry is booming. A robust economy and high demand for premium wines have growers rushing to develop thousands of acres of new vineyards. As the golden grassy knolls and woodlands of the California wine country are being replaced with vines, the wind industry is facing an unfamiliar backlash. Sally Eisele has our story.
(Plane engine)

MOORE: This is an aerial photo of about 600 acres of ranch land...

EISELE: Seventy miles north of San Francisco, Kevin Moore's small farm overlooks the lush Alexander Valley, one of the most abundant grape-growing regions in Sonoma County. From the kitchen he studies an old map of the way the area used to look: rolling hills interspersed with orchards, oak groves, and the occasional verdant vineyard. Now, Kevin Moore says vineyards dominate, and the trend is obvious all over the north coast.
MOORE: It's unbelievable. I can't conceive that there's that much wine to be drank in the world as a whole as what they're putting in vineyards in the last five years.

EISELE: One of those vineyards is going in right next door. Two bulldozers crisscross a slope, clearing branches and brush from what used to be a small forest. Now an eight-foot barbed wire fence separates the property, and limits access to one of the only local water sources for wildlife. Again, Kevin Moore.

MOORE: Be interesting to see what happens with the water, the wildlife, and everything, but we won't know for 50 years, maybe 100 years, and it'll be too late, then. You'll never see a tree like the one that's right behind you ever again in this spot. Seventy-five feet tall valley oak. Not in our lifetimes.

EISELE: Scenes like these are playing out around California. The state has added some 100,000 acres of wine grapes since 1990, a 30% increase in vineyard land. Eleven thousand of those acres are in rural Sonoma County. Visitors come from all over the world to see the wine country, but Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, says increasingly the locals don't like the view.

GREEN: Vineyards can be beautiful, particularly if they're backed by hills that aren't vineyards. Hills that look like green corduroy and have every stick that isn't a vineyard taken off it are not particularly beautiful, and most people in Sonoma County feel that way.
EISELE: Aesthetics are a big part of the debate, but it's more than that. Edina Merenlender is a natural resource specialist with the University of California, Berkeley Extension. She's been studying the development trend now for three years, recording the data on a computer map.

MERENLENDER: If you zoom into this information and look at it on the map, what we see is that later vineyards are up on steeper slopes than vineyards developed before 1990.

EISELE: Ms. Merenlender is concerned about soil erosion on those hillsides, and loss of habitat, particularly oak woodlands. She says thousands of acres of those native trees have been lost to vineyard development. Perhaps the most visible example is in Santa Barbara County, a rapidly-growing agricultural county on the southern California coast. In 1997, Kendall Jackson Winery cut down more than 800 old oak trees for a massive new vineyard, a highly- publicized move that drew criticism around the state. Increasingly, large vineyard development projects are meeting with community resistance. But Mark Green says another, less visible part of the problem is the influx of newcomers drawn by the romance of the wine country.

GREEN: The problem is that most of those people don't have a clue about farming. But they have enough money to buy a piece of land which may be nearly vertical, and the next thing you know, they're out there stripping these very, very steep slopes without any kind of adherence to erosion control, sticking vines in the ground. Then they don't understand why people are mad when it all ends up at the bottom of the hill.

EISELE: That anger is beginning to result in local efforts to limit vineyard development. In Santa Barbara County, negotiations continue on a measure to protect the oak woodlands. In Sonoma County this spring, officials approved an ordinance intended to reduce erosion, which can deplete valuable topsoil and clog waterways with sediment. The measure limits vineyard development on steep hillsides and requires all growers to submit their vineyard plans to the county for approval. Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner John Westoby is charged with enforcing the measure.

WESTOBY: It will put growers on notice, what their responsibilities are. And in the end it'll be good for the growers and the environment.

EISELE: The debate over vineyard development has many growers on the defensive, arguing the actions of a few irresponsible farmers are giving them all a bad reputation.
SMITH: Most growers are very conscientious and realize that if they lose their soil, they're not going to have anything to farm in the long run. (Spilling water)

EISELE: Stuart Smith is a co-owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery in Napa County. At this steep hillside vineyard, even the water they use to wash their vehicles is carefully managed.
SMITH: The water's got to go somewhere, and if you don't take into consideration in your engineering of the layout where that water goes, it'll go where you don't want it to go. And if it does that, you're going to have soil erosion.

EISELE: In this mountain vineyard, it's easy to see how soil erosion could be a problem. From the winery, the land dips sharply downhill. The rows are contoured in wide horizontal stripes to protect against runoff. If you look carefully, you can see crude drains which route water and sediment to a small holding pond for later recycling. Cover crops interspersed with the vines also help keep the soil in place.

SMITH: We have some mustard here. Here is a little bit of blando broom. There's fillery...

EISELE: Mr. Smith says farmers have learned these techniques through trial and error, not by government regulation. He's been growing grapes since the early 1970s, when the industry was just coming into its own and experimentation was the order of the day.

SMITH: We had the ability to be free and open, and we weren't encumbered by government restrictions, government regulations. And that's all changed. And that, I think, bodes ill for the future.

EISELE: Mr. Smith sits on a task force currently reviewing Napa County's own hillside development rules. He worries too many government restrictions will ultimately hurt the California wine industry's ability to compete in a world market. But the trend is in the direction of more regulation, not less. And as public pressure mounts, vineyard owners are responding. Some of the biggest growers are leading the way. (Tractor engine)

EISELE: A former farm along the Rogers Creek Watershed is Beringer Vineyard's latest acquisition. Here, a tractor prepares the soil for new vines. The hilly 600-acre parcel near the town of Sonoma is studded with trees. The law doesn't require any particular protection for these trees, but vineyard manager Bob Steinhower says they're all staying.

STEINHOWER: We have turned down many pieces of property where it would require major tree removal and forests and what have you, just because we didn't want to be the people that were doing it. I think that's a valley oak over there, and you can see all the live oaks. We haven't taken out any trees here.

EISELE: To be sure, Beringer has taken out plenty of trees as it's grown over the years into an industry kingpin with more than 10,000 acres of grapes. But Mr. Steinhower says the company's philosophy has evolved.

STEINHOWER: We're learning to live with the environment, and I see that as all very positive. We're not the only people doing this. There's many, many people that are taking on natural farming technology, trying to protect the environment, and trying to do the best they can and still remain in business.

EISELE: Some of the neighbors at this development still don't like the fact that a vineyard is going in next door. They worry the county is losing its rural character. But as north coast growers are all quick to point out, land prices here are skyrocketing. Prime farmland can sell for upwards of $50,000 an acre. And they say better vineyards than the kind of development that has turned the prune orchards south of San Francisco into the suburban sprawl of the Silicon Valley. For Living on Earth, I'm Sally Eisele in Sonoma County, California.



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