Concern for Oaks Fuels Vintage Battle


In the gently rolling hills that surround this northern Santa Barbara County community, down a long, meandering drive, past grapevines planted with military precision, lies the Sanford Winery.

It is here that Richard Sanford, devoted follower of Taoism and former Vietnam naval officer, realized his dream. When he came to the Santa Ynez Valley nearly 30 years ago, Sanford wanted two things: to make great wine, and to do it with environmental sensitivity and stewardship.

Today, Sanford Winery produces its vintages from organically grown grapes. There is an emphasis on recycling and conservation across the property. The towering, majestic valley oaks that dot his land have been integrated into the vineyards. No oak has ever been felled.


But lately, Sanford says, he feels like the Lone Ranger.

Sparked by the recent cutting of nearly 900 oak trees by another winery, Sanford joined a coalition of environmentalists and biologists to launch a countywide ballot initiative that would severely curtail the number of oak trees that can be cut down to make room for vineyards.

“It’s a responsibility we have, I think,” said Sanford, 56. “Manifest destiny was the last century; the frontier has been won. Now we have to come up with a new paradigm, one of being in nature and part of nature, not controlling it.”

He added: “I think it’s very hard to mitigate a 300-year-old oak tree.”

But, while many vintners protect and integrate the oaks into their vineyards, few support an effort they believe would infringe on their private property rights.

The ballot initiative sponsored by the new coalition, the Alliance to Conserve Oak Resources Now, or ACORN, was one of several strikes made in recent weeks in the battle to save the oaks in Santa Barbara County’s northern valleys.

Outcry Over Tree Removal

The controversy began last fall when the owners of Kendall Jackson winery bulldozed 843 oaks to create a vineyard in the Los Alamos Valley just north of here. The winery had permits to remove the trees, but there was a public outcry.

Alarmed environmentalists and biologists asked the county Board of Supervisors to declare an emergency moratorium on the cutting of any more oaks, but the board declined. Instead, supervisors directed a diverse mix of environmentalists and those in the agriculture community to devise a voluntary plan to protect the trees.

Those involved say this collaborative process, while promising, has so far failed to produce any substantive protection measures.

Several days after the coalition launched its petition drive to get the oak initiative on the November ballot, two vintners announced they had brokered an agreement among more than 50 valley wineries to voluntarily plant 10 oak seedlings for every tree they remove for grapes. Adam Firestone, one of the vintners, hopes it will be seen as a viable alternative to the more heavy-handed initiative.

The agreement will be presented to county supervisors Tuesday, when the board also will hear from the collaborative group.

Last week, the Sierra Club became involved by filing a lawsuit against Santa Barbara County, contending that county officials failed to adequately protect the landmark oaks by allowing Kendall Jackson to cut so many trees.

Much is at stake because winemaking in this region is big business, from the Santa Maria Valley at the county’s northern end south through the Santa Ynez Valley.

When the value of the finished product--the wine--is figured in, wine grapes are the No. 1 agricultural product in Santa Barbara County, bringing in more than $100 million in industry revenues per year.

But increased production in recent years has resulted in the loss of considerable woodland. A county staff report says about 2,000 oaks have been removed in the Los Alamos Valley alone over the past 18 months to make way for grapevines. That number represents more trees than have been taken out for all urban development and rural subdivisions in the county in the past 10 years.

Given the current rate of expansion--and land purchases by large wine producers--the county says vineyard acreage could triple to 45,000 acres over the next decade, rivaling that in Napa and Sonoma counties.

California valley oaks, found nowhere else in the world, are most threatened by vineyard expansion.

Oak woodlands and the riparian systems that support them are considered California’s most biologically diverse ecosystem. They support nearly 2,400 species of plants and animals, and 4,000 species of insects. Woodland creatures such as hawks, eagles, deer, foxes and bobcats depend on oaks during breeding season, according to county officials.

Proposed Restrictions

Initiative supporters such as Sanford say oaks can be valuable to vineyard owners. The trees provide perches for raptors, which keep rodent populations down among the vines. They also protect water quality and reduce topsoil erosion.

If county voters approve the ACORN initiative, landowners would need county permits to remove more than 48 trees, of specified sizes, over a five-year period for any agricultural development.

Willy Chamberlin, a Los Olivos ranch owner, former county supervisor and director of the Santa Barbara County Cattlemen’s Assn., is among those ranchers concerned about the proposed restrictions.

“People want to regulate, but they don’t want to compensate,” he said. “It’s the old argument that what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.”

Fess Parker, whose Fess Parker Winery is one of the newer vineyards in the valley, said: “My fundamental belief is that while I might have an opinion about saving the oak trees, I can only exercise that opinion on my own property.”

That’s a popular sentiment. Firestone, who manages the Firestone Vineyard, worked with fellow vintner Tom Beckmen to spearhead the 10-for-1 replacement agreement. Almost every north county grape grower signed it, including Kendall Jackson.

Firestone, whose father, Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, started the family’s vineyard two decades ago, also has taken a lead in regenerative work with oaks.

He said the winery spends more than $20,000 a year to plant and nurture new oaks.

In France, 100-year-old vineyards and oak woodlands coexist. “Why couldn’t it happen here?” Firestone asked.

Sanford would say it is happening, on his land and the other vineyards he manages. But he worries about the profit-based incentives of corporate-owned wineries.

“The voluntary process is only as good as the volunteers,” Sanford said. “I think we need something a little stronger.”