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[whitespace] Purple Gold

Like the legendary '49ers, wineries have come to northwestern Sonoma County looking for gold--but this time it's small, round, and purple

By Tara Treasurefield

Annie and Fred Cresswell are bringing up the third generation of Cresswells in northwestern Sonoma County. They have loved the high ridge tops and deep valleys of the rugged coastal hills since they were children. Until 10 years ago, they had no reason to believe that it would ever disappear. Then Walt and Joan Flowers replaced a nearby ridge top meadow with a vineyard, and the Cresswell's world fell apart.

"Local Indians once used the meadow as their summer meeting ground," says Annie Cresswell. "It was bordered with redwoods, fir trees, live oaks, and wild nutmeg. The hill is still there, but it's been completely cleared of trees. They have taken our tree line."

Cresswell says that vineyards have also displaced wildlife and that for both human and nonhuman neighbors, the heavy equipment, chemicals, dust, traffic, noise, and lights that accompany vineyards and wineries are persistent annoyances and potential health hazards.

The transition from open space to vineyards accelerated in 1998. Sir Peter Michael, a British lord, hired a logger to clearcut 20 acres of his property, which is behind the Cresswell's home. Michael intended to plant vineyards there, but he neglected to get the required permits for logging and converting timberland to vineyards. Michael was eventually fined $42,000, and the vineyard was put on hold. But the damage had been done. All that remains of the previously wooded area are sprouting stumps in an open field.

Four years have passed since Michael's brush with the law for illegal logging, and he still doesn't have the permits he needs to plant vineyards in the coastal hills. But he hasn't given up. The California Department of Forestry is considering Michael's application for a permit to clearcut 40 more acres of woodland behind the Cresswell home.

Michael has also applied to the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to drain the wetlands on his property and replace it with a vineyard. In addition, David Hirsch, owner of Hirsch Vineyard, is planting more grapes, and Walt Flowers, owner of Flowers Vineyard and Winery, is expanding his production. Little by little, the untamed wilds of the Sonoma Coast are being torn apart and replaced with neat, infinite rows of fenced vineyards, and dotted with wineries.

Prospecting for Gold

It's not that vineyards and wine making are new to the Northwest County, says Cresswell. When she was growing up, a few local residents converted their cattle ranches to vineyards. But what's happening now is different.

"The industrial vineyards are not neighbors who are just trying to survive on the land and have an emotional attachment to the land," Cresswell says. "It's all about profit and nothing about community. It's like the Gold Rush, but it's purple this time. We've been discovered. We're on the map as a premium grape-growing region. It's gotten to the point where we have to do something or there won't be any woodland left. It will be all vineyards and wineries."

Daniel Schoenfeld, owner of Wild Hog Vineyard organic winery in the hills above Fort Ross, is more hopeful than the Cresswells. "Once you get to know the people involved, it's hard to demonize them," he says. "There are very few people out here that you can't work with if you have an open mind."

Schoenfeld also says that comparing vineyard development to the Gold Rush is an exaggeration. "There was a big rush out here about three or four years ago, but that has changed. At the moment, I can't think of anyone who plans to come in. It's really expensive to plant grapes, and yield tends to be low here [on the Sonoma Coast] because of the climate and the soil.

"With the exception of people who have too much money," he says, "people are looking at slowing down sales. There are a few absolute premium people who haven't had a slowdown. But that's the exception, not the rule."

Reports that the wine boom is over have appeared in the mainstream press. Nonetheless, vineyard and winery expansion continues apace in the Northwest County. David Hirsch has 50 acres of wine grapes and is planting 50 more. In March, the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department gave him a permit to build a winery and produce 15,000 cases of wine each year. He originally requested 30,000 cases, but after a meeting with concerned neighbors, he settled for a lower number.

Once a clothing importer and exporter, Hirsch bought his 1,100 acres 30 years ago. He tried sheep ranching first. "We couldn't make any money at that," he says. "A ram was a major customer for the wolf. We couldn't kill the coyotes anymore [when new environmental laws were passed]."

Then a viticulturist told Hirsch that he'd make a fortune if he planted pinot noir grapes. "He was right!" says Hirsch. "[Before], this ranch couldn't even support one person. Now there are four families and kids, day laborers, and all kinds of suppliers." That doesn't mean it's easy. Hirsch starts work at 4:30am and doesn't stop until 5pm or 6pm. But like many residents in the area, he still finds time to plant redwoods and Douglas firs to replace trees lost to clearcutting after World War II and to huge fires in 1954 and 1978.

Walt Flowers now has 80 acres of vineyards and says that's all he'll ever need. But he does want to make more wine, and to do that, he needs a larger winery. On July 25, the PRMD approved Flowers' request to increase production from 9,500 cases per year to 20,000. Defending the expansion, which will involve heavy construction in a fragile environment, Flowers says, "We have really tried very, very hard to fit into the community and deal with their concerns. Altogether, our winery, plus the winery expansions, plus all our buildings, totals less than one acre. If you consider vineyards as open space, our property is 87 percent open space."

It's generally understood that "open space" is undeveloped, unfenced, wildlife-friendly land--not vineyards.

Land of the Free

In June, environmental consulting firm Leonard Charles and Associates of San Anselmo released a draft report on the environmental impacts of wine industry expansion in northwestern Sonoma County. Residents requested the report and have passed it on to the PRMD. Water tops the list of concerns addressed in the report. Leonard Charles writes, "Vineyards and wineries are diverting the few natural springs, pumping from wells, and/or diverting runoff or stream water to provide water for their operations. These withdrawals deplete stream flows, particularly at the end of the dry season."

Echoing this concern, Annie Cresswell says, "The South Fork of the Gualala River is on or crosses both [the Flowers and Michael] properties. The river supports coho and steelhead salmon, two sensitive species in this watercourse. [Also], Flowers Vineyards is situated directly above the river, and vineyard pesticides could adversely affect these species." Vineyard chemicals--and the erosion and sedimentation that result from development--also affect the quantity and quality of neighbors' drinking water, reports Leonard Charles.

Marlena Guinther, who once worked at Flowers Vineyard and Winery, quit out of concern for the environmental changes that result from wine industry expansion. "So much of the wildlife habitat was removed [by Flowers]," she says. "I didn't want to be a part of this expansion. . . . There were once herds of wild hog here. I haven't seen any wild pigs in two or three years. [Vineyard workers] use propane boom guns that give off percussion sounds intermittently to scare off wildlife."

Traffic is another concern. Elaine Wellin, associate professor of sociology at Sonoma State University, says, "Each week, it seems, we hear a new story about residents being run off the road by large commercial trucks going to vineyards, wineries, and other destinations in the hills."

Leonard Charles reports that most of the roads in the area are too narrow to even provide a median stripe, and industrial vineyards generate a significant amount of traffic. "Many of the workers in these vineyards commute or, if they are provided farm worker housing on-site, drive to town for supplies and recreation, to school, etc. Grapes are hauled out, equipment and supplies are hauled in, often on large trucks. The increased traffic on these substandard roads poses a significant safety risk for local residents."

The firm also highlights fire hazard, which strikes a chord with Wellin. "It's a tinder box out here," she says. "The fire hazard with visitors and increased labor is enormous. This is not a safe place for people who don't understand the danger."

In 1978 fire destroyed the home that Wellin built with her own hands. "From a distance, it looked like Mordor, the desolate land in Lord of the Rings."

Perhaps the most unusual impact mentioned in the report will affect residents whose ancestors are buried in a cemetery that dates back to the 1880s--and which happens to be on Peter Michael's property. "It's a functional cemetery that's being used today," says Steve Smith, area forester at the Department of Forestry. "There are questions about continued community access and the ambiance of the area around the cemetery. Unfortunately, where the cemetery is located is the only place that has access to the road."

Money Talks

Regulators acknowledge that vineyards and wineries have impacts. But, they say, there are limits to what they can do to protect the environment. "We review the project to make sure there isn't something out there that would create a big problem, like a big slide," says Chuck Joiner, a division chief for resource management at the Department of Forestry. "We have mitigations to minimize the impact of the conversion. But the county has ultimate control, because they zone the land. If the county zoning allows a vineyard, then when the people apply to us, we're bound by what the county says you can do there. We don't control land use. The counties do."

By far the most popular zone for vineyards in Sonoma County is the Rural Resources Development Zone, which permits not only vineyards but also wineries and bed and breakfast inns. Joiner says that if vineyards were dropped from this zone, there probably wouldn't be many vineyard conversions. "[But] the board of supervisors would have to approve that change. It's political, as well as everything else."

Currently, vineyards are allowed in every zone in the county, including the Timber Production Zone. At the same time, if there's standing timber on property in any zone, the owner cannot legally log the land and plant vineyards without a permit from the Department of Forestry.

Steve Smith is reviewing Michael's application to clearcut 40 acres of his property and convert it to vineyards. "We have two incompatible goals," he says. "These people own the land and they can do what they're legally allowed to do on the land. On the other hand, we have to minimize their activity in order to lessen whatever damage is done to the environment as they meet their goals. We're tasked with minimizing the destruction to the environment by suggesting mitigations or solutions. There's going to have to be some compromise."

Since its stated policy is to follow the county's lead regarding land use, there's a good chance that the Department of Forestry will allow Michael to clearcut the 40 acres and convert it to vineyards. There are also signs that the Army Corps of Engineers will allow Michael to fill in the wetlands on his property and replace it with a vineyard. Jane Hicks, section chief at the Corps, says they'll "engage in a balancing act" as they make the decision. "Among many other things, we look at generally if there is going to be an economic benefit to the area or the applicant. Will it produce jobs?"

Because Michael's wetlands are much smaller than other projects the Corps is evaluating, it won't receive a detailed review. "I know this is a very controversial project locally," she says. "[But] if we make a determination that the overall project, including the effect of economics, is not contrary to the public interest, then we would issue the permit."

Wetlands are few and far between in the Northwest County, and they are a critical source of water for wildlife. Michael proposes to mitigate the harm that would result from replacing the wetlands with a vineyard by putting an irrigation reservoir somewhere else on his property. Environmentalists point out that it just wouldn't be the same, and, currently, Corps reviewers agree. Ultimately, one man at the Corps, the district engineer, will make the final decision about whether to approve or reject Michael's request.

Taming the Wild

According to Leonard Charles and Associates, the key to protecting the environment is the general plan, which is currently under review. "The existing general plan did not foresee the grape explosion. It did not foresee conversion of land to industrial vineyards, wineries, and bed and breakfast inns. The new land uses permitted by the county over the past few years are causing significant environmental changes. As importantly, they are allowing the character of the community to be destroyed in favor of a typical market-driven industrial economy."

Leonard Charles recommends that county officials look at the cumulative impacts of all projects as a whole, rather than one at a time, and conduct a full environmental assessment before deciding on land use designations and policies for the new general plan.

The Citizens Advisory Committee is currently holding public hearings on the general plan. In the fall of 2003, the PRMD will consider the Committee's recommendations. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will complete the review process in the summer of 2003, when it will hold the final set of public hearings and make final decisions.

In addition to changing the general plan, Elaine Wellin wants to change prevailing beliefs about northwestern Sonoma County. "The ethos in the county is that no one is here, and we're just going to be vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms, and bed and breakfast inns. Our enemy is not so much the wineries but this ethos. Plans that affect us are being made in other places, by people who don't seem to realize we live here.

"We need to be heard," she continues, "and we are mobilizing mightily in this area. We're working to let the powers that be know that this isn't a place where no one cares, where they can just keep throwing out permits for development."

Cresswell is grateful that the community has come together. "People are sitting up and taking notice," she says. "I get phone calls daily, thanking me for my work and telling me that the angels are on my side.

"Throughout Sonoma County, many people feel that enough is enough."

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From the August 8-14, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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