Two plants have long been iconic to Northern California: the soaring redwood tree and the lush wine grapevine. But should one be sacrificed for the other?
That question is being raised in Sonoma County a few miles from the Pacific and above the fog line, where two large wineries are petitioning the state to allow them to clear 2,000 acres of redwoods and Douglas firs to make room for new Pinot Noir vineyards.
Sonoma County planners say it would be the largest woodland-to-vineyard conversion in California’s history and, not surprisingly, it’s touched off a debate between fans of the majestic trees and aficionados of the grapes.
On one side are vintners eager to satisfy the public’s growing taste for California Pinot Noir, a varietal that has a growing fan base and is part of the post-recession rebound of the state’s wine industry.
On the other are environmentalists who want to protect the ecosystem of second-growth forests still recovering from earlier logging and even some winemakers, who are uneasy with the idea of cutting down redwoods to expand their industry’s reach.
Codorniu, based in Spain and one of the world’s largest wine producers, wants to use the land to expand the grape production of its winery in Napa, called Artesa. Another Napa winery, Premier Pacific Vineyards, wants to cultivate more Pinot Noir grapes and build 60 high-end estates on adjacent lands it already owns, called Preservation Ranch.
In exchange, the developers promise to restore streams, add more than 200 acres to a county park, plant 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs and make other environmental improvements.
Passions are running high among the opposition, though. One environmentalist critical of the project has taken to carrying a giant plywood replica of a chain saw to public meetings of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Chris Poehlmann, a 61-year-old specialist in designing interactive museum exhibits, has also appeared at the meetings dressed as a 7-foot-tall, 40-pound wine bottle.
“We are not going to let them rip these trees out by their roots,” Poehlmann said, “change the soil chemistry with amendments and develop neighborhoods so that these forests will never grow back.”
Countered Nick Fry, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission: “This is not a plan to build a mall,” he said. “They’re talking about growing grapes.”
The project is slated for Annapolis, a remote coastal outpost known for its grazing sheep and wildlife, including the endangered steelhead trout, a symbol of the nearby Gualala River, one of the cleanest waterways in California.
The land where developers envision future vineyards is ideal for redwoods and firs but also for the finicky Pinot Noir grape. The days are bright and warm and the nights cool; excellent conditions for growing the thin-skinned grape.
There is an economic draw to the area too. Just as “Napa Valley” on a wine label can command a higher price for a bottle of Cabernet, there is a certain amount of cachet to Pinot Noirs made along the Sonoma Coast.
Tom Adams, a Preservation Ranch official, contends that the project’s opponents are exaggerating the effect of converting the land to vineyards and downplaying the benefits. These forests can be cleared and preserved at the same time, he said, to serve the needs of the land and its residents -- as well as the corporations’ financial interests. “We are here, first and foremost, because this is a premier location with potential to produce world-class wine,” Adams said.
The effort comes just as the state’s wine industry is emerging from a slump. After two years of sluggish wine sales and a glut of inventory, consumers are starting to reach for -- and spend more on -- their favorite varietals.
Domestic wine sales grew 7% in 2010 over the previous year, according to the Wine Institute in San Francisco. And for the first time, American consumers in 2010 bought more wine than the French (though the French still drink far more wine per capita than Americans).
Not surprisingly, U.S. winemakers are seeking to capitalize on the public’s renewed interest and hedge their bets by diversifying what they produce. One wine getting attention, particularly among restaurant sommeliers, is Pinot Noir.
A high-end Pinot Noir from Sonoma may not be cheap -- but it’s often less expensive than a bottle of Cabernet from Napa.
“People want something to drink in a restaurant that they can enjoy and yet still afford. More often, that’s a Pinot Noir,” said Merry Edwards, owner of a winery in the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol.
But the idea of turning these forest lands into grape farms chills some conservationists. “I don’t see a need for more deforestation to have a great wine economy, because there is a lot of cleared land already available,” said Adina Merelender, a UC Berkeley conservation biologist.
“The big issue for us,” added Jay Holcomb of the Sierra Club, “is that redwoods-to-vineyards conversions are worse than clear-cutting because they are permanent.”
Opponents organized under the banner Friends of the Gualala River have enlisted allies among the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, who worry that the project would destroy sacred remains scattered throughout the targeted groves.
“I get mad just thinking about the people from far away who can’t wait to buy wine from vineyards that would destroy our forests and ancestral lands,” said Violet Parrish, a Pomo tribal elder who lives near Annapolis. “We don’t want those vineyards, or the fertilizer and pesticides that would pollute water supplies our children will depend upon.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on, though, is that Sonoma County, the lead regulatory agency considering the land deal, faces some tough choices when planners take up the issue later this year.
Sonoma County planner David Schiltgen says the project is “controversial from beginning to end.”
“They are proposing to completely remove the forest and replace it with vineyards,” he said, “at a time when political winds are howling with global deforestation and carbon-sequestration concerns.”