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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Sign of the times: During a recent Town Hall Coalition meeting, 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly listens intently as west county residents decry the onslaught of new vineyards in the region.

The Wrath of Grapes

West county residents are seeing red over rampant vineyard expansion

By Sara Peyton

DON'T BE FOOLED by the relative calm of downtown Occidental, a row of family-style Italian restaurants, gift shops, and hideaway inns: this is ground zero in what is shaping up to become one of the biggest political battles in Sonoma County history. Through the glass window of hair stylist Debra Anderson's Lookinglass Salon you can see downtown Occidental's new environmental center, at the heart of an escalating uproar over the sprawl of new grapevines snaking along the dry flaxen hillsides of west county.

The newly staked vines are a new gold rush that's changing the face of the region's historic ranching communities. Seeing vintage oaks cut and removed as land with heritage views is graded and planted in grapes--with little discussion about the county's future--has folks demanding to know the environmental consequences of turning water into wine.

Anderson and political activist Lynn Hamilton are at the core of a growing organization, the newly formed Town Hall Coalition, which is working to protect watersheds forests and natural habitats. The local grassroots group supports sustainable agriculture and a mix of crops.

From behind the desk at her shop, Anderson says, "I do a significant amount of the hair around here and I hear what's getting said."

Last summer, while Anderson trimmed and styled, clients mostly complained about vineyard development near their homes. Some told her about wells drying up and about bulldozers nudging piles of dirt near environmentally fragile streams.

"There were strings of these occurrences. I knew we had to do something," she says. In her mid-'40s, president of Occidental's Chamber of Commerce, and the mother of four, Anderson joined about a dozen west county residents who organized the recent series of packed Occidental town meetings to voice concerns about the vineyard conversions.

Anderson wasn't surprised when some 450 to 500 folks--including nurses, biologists, writers, musicians, in surance representatives, artists, plumbers, developers, consultants, contractors, environmentalists, organic farmers, real estate agents, and grape growers--crammed the tiny town's Community Center in early September. "I have a good grasp about what goes on here and how to motivate the town," Anderson says.

"This isn't about 'us against the grape growers,' " she adds, waving a manicured hand at the environmental center at the entrance to her shop. "It's about learning how to be a good neighbors."

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Lifeblood? Sonoma County has established itself in the lucrative premium-grape niche

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ON THIS WARM and sunny October afternoon, Lynn Hamilton and her husband, Don Frank, are busy setting up the new environmental center, now freshly equipped with a phone and fax machine. Hamilton, a former mayor of Sebastopol, settled in Occidental last year and became a driving force behind the movement to stop the vineyard conversions. Before that, she spent several years in South America working for Ashoka, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that promotes social change by funding creative people who have come up with new ways to help the poor and improve social systems in their countries.

'Working for Ashoka and meeting social entrepreneurs from around the world has helped me be more effective," says Hamilton, 51. "The purpose of the Town Hall Coalition is to effect social change. We're giving people information so they can come up with new proposals, write a letter, testify at a hearing, or reach out to a neighbor. This is not a protest movement--it's a social change movement.

"One reason why I left South America was that the deforestation and erosion there were escalating and I couldn't see a way it could be stopped. I wanted to come home and prevent the conversion of forests to agricultural land here," she says

Seeing the Napa-based Phelps Vinyard preparing a golden Freestone hillside for grapes and hearing about widespread forest conversions--including a plan to clear-cut 4,000 acres of coastal land for the largest vineyard conversion of all--got Hamilton thinking. In late August, she and her husband celebrated their recent marriage with a party at their home. In lieu of gifts, they asked for donations to start a fund to protect watersheds and forests in Sonoma County. The money raised (about $1,500) helped underwrite the cost of the first town hall meeting.

Still, the sizable turnout was a surprise. "I had no idea what was going to happen," she says. "After the meeting, we were overwhelmed by phone calls and e-mails. We've had calls from Sonoma, Healdsburg, Napa, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and across the country.

"We knew then that we were on to something and that there's a lot of support to protect the environment from slash-and-burn agriculture," says Hamilton. Indeed, environmental groups in vineyard-laden Healdsburg and Sonoma have invited the Town Hall Coalition to hold town meetings in their communities, and plans are under way to hit the road early next year.

"At our meetings, we have an opportunity to build informal relationships and to network," says Hamilton. "It's exciting to hook up with people throughout the county and reach out to a neighbor."

Lynn Hamilton
Photograph by Michael Amsler

Meeting of the minds: Lynn Hamilton, right, confers with fellow coalition members. ONE GRAPE grower who is listening is Mel Sanchietti. On the day following my visit to the environmental center, he's on the doorstep of my Occidental home for some straight talk about vineyards. It's harvest time and Sanchietti is busy, but he's also anxious to talk about what farming life is really like.

"I was pleasantly surprised that Lynn Hamilton and I think alike about a lot of things. We share a love of the county and we both want to preserve our community," says Sanchietti, vice president in charge of vineyards for Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville. He owns a newly planted 65-acre vineyard surrounding his home. He attended both recent Town Hall Coalition meetings, talked about his work at the second forum, and plans to participate in future Town Hall meetings.

A third-generation farmer, Sanchietti played football for Sebastopol's Analy High School. His family has farmed in the county since 1919. Today, Sanchietti, his wife, and 15-year-old son live in his grandparents' old homestead. "We've farmed everything from prunes to apples to grapes," he tells me as we walk around my yard. "That's sustainable agriculture.

"I do wonder how non-professionals putting in these small vineyards are going to take care of their crop legally and make a profit," he muses, naming some agricultural regulations, including a requirement that growers keep detailed records of pesticide usage, legal labor hired, and grading permits obtained.

Not too many years ago, Sanchietti disliked discussing farming with people whose views about agriculture and farming practices differed from his own. But now that he's 50 and a grandfather, he finds he's more willing to listen to others even if he doesn't agree with them. Since the town hall meetings, Sanchietti is spending more time talking to the neighbors. And he's pondering new ways to reach out to those who live near his vineyard and Korbel's winery. He's thinking about distributing a calendar detailing those dates when spraying and other work occur at the vineyards. "I was afraid of doing something like this before," he says.

Sanchietti says he supports the new county hillside vineyard ordinance, describing it as a "good beginning." The first-of-its-kind ordinance, which takes effect Dec. 2, was crafted amid a storm of controversy after negotiations between environmentalists and growers. Designed to reduce the environmental degradation of streams, the ordinance bars new vineyards on hillsides steeper than 50 percent, and requires growers to pay fees, submit erosion control plans for plantings on allowable slopes, and have 50-foot setbacks from streams and other riparian areas.

Sanchietti thinks an additional groundwater ordinance--an idea promoted by the Town Hall Coalition and now being researched on the county level at the urging of 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly--may be a good idea.

And Sanchietti doesn't approve of logging redwoods to plant grapes. He says Korbel owns about 1,500 acres in Sonoma County, with hundreds of forested acres it could develop for vineyards but won't. "We keep our redwoods," he says.

He notes that the famous champagne makers also own a large organic vineyard in Kenwood and use environmentally friendly integrated-pest management techniques.

Sanchietti wants to coexist amicably with the neighbors of his family vineyard and the vineyards he manages for Korbel. But he hopes longtime farmers will get credit from environmentalists and open-space advocates for preserving agricultural lands and preventing housing development.

"Most of us work hard at being real farmers," he concludes.

LATER THAT EVENING, the historic Union Hotel in downtown Occidental is jammed with Town Hall Coalition members, community folks, and environmentalists of all stripes, including some decked out in their rainbow-colored best. It's the annual dinner and fundraiser for the Western Sonoma County Rural Alliance.

There's a lot of talk and wine sipping.

There's little evidence of the recent sniping among some who fear more regulations of county agriculture will open the door to housing development and those who say that without additional regulations corporate vineyards will blanket the landscape with industrial grapes.

Jumping up on a chair to speak to the crowd is Dave Hensen, the director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and a Town Hall Coalition organizer. "This is the moment of ripeness," he says, calling for enhancements of the wildlife habitat and the elimination of pesticides. "There's an agrarian revolt happening around the planet. We need more town hall meetings, and we need to take them on the road. What we organize here can be a model for the planet."

Hansen later tells me, "It's my intention to talk to as many farmers as possible. We're not anti-farm. We're trying to help the family farm prosper. I've seen how macro-economics can make and break whole communities. Where I think we can find common ground is with the people who love this community and love these hills even if we don't always agree on farming practices."

Among those at the dinner is county Supervisor Mike Reilly. "I haven't seen this many people involved in an issue since the issues around the Santa Rosa sewage spill into the Russian River in the '80s," Reilly says. All the new people involved with the Town Hall Coalition that are showing up at supervisors' meetings and writing letters are having an effect on county decisions, he adds.

"The coalition came together quickly, but once someone called a meeting on the issue it struck a chord with a great many. People are seeing the character of their land around them change, and they're upset about it for a variety of reasons," says Reilly about the increase of highly visible new vineyards sprouting in the west county.

But, he warns, "there are a lot of different issues and there's a tendency to roll them up into a ball and deal with them all at once. When you're talking about issues like groundwater depletion in water-scarce areas, the whole pesticide issue, cutting redwood trees down to plant vineyards--each one of these issues has its own levels of jurisdiction within the government, and they're probably going to have be dealt with each in its own right over time.

"The question is whether the Town Hall Coalition will have the energy to sustain that kind of an effort."

Noting that developing and enacting new county ordinances and regulations takes months and sometimes years, Reilly hopes that "vineyard folks and Town Hall folks find a way to engage in a dialogue on some of these issues so we can get a better sense of what solutions are possible."

Reilly is firmly against clearing redwoods to plant grapes. He points to a recent study by the University of California identifying some 150,000 acres locally suitable to conversion to grapes, nearly triple the acreage dedicated to grapes today. "The key to the study was to identify redwood and timber woodland areas that are at risk of being converted to vineyards and also to identify to the Open Space District the areas that are most threat-ened," says Reilly.

An evening public workshop about the report will be held Nov. 2 at the county Board of Supervisors chambers.

FOR NOW, Town Hall Coalition organizers are optimistic that they can prevent Sonoma County from becoming a banana republic to the grape industry--or a "grape republic," as some quip. On their agenda is the development of "Fight-Back" community organizing kits to help property owners deal with timber-conversion plans and new vineyards. They're looking to strengthen the new hillside ordinance, researching groundwater regulations and buffer zones in other areas, learning about the impact of pesticide use and fencing on wildlife habitat; and they have plans to interview political candidates throughout the county about these issues. They're also creating lists of wineries and vineyards that rely on organic and biodynamic methods and are recommending such environmentally friendly grape growers to their friends, co-workers, and alumnae associations.

Working on all of these projects are some 200 people assigned to various citizen-action committees--forestry, labor, law, media, outreach, politics, toxics, air quality, water, and winery safety.

Those involved include people like local resident Jim Hendrikson--who joined the water committee--who say they're in for the long haul. You might say Hendrikson knows a lot about huge undertaking--she was the music editor for the blockbuster movie Titanic. "I was surprised by the first town hall meeting," he says. "I had expected chest thumping, angry venting, and a lot of bemoaning. But there was a lot less of that than I expected.

"I was gratified that we hit the ground running, got organized, and started addressing our concerns at supervisors' meetings."

Hendrikson's immediate concerns are over a small six- to seven-acre vineyard about to be planted across the street from his home. "I'm getting my well tested tomorrow to have a point of demarcation before the vineyard goes in. We're also going to put some plantings on our side of the road to shield us from spraying, noise, and dust," says Hendrikson, who moved to Occidental in 1995.

"I'm surprised by how much has changed in four years," he says about the new rows of vines in his ridgetop neighborhood. But we need to work with the local growers, understand their problems, and work toward responsible methods of farming. We don't want to alienate the people who have spent a lifetime here. Fighting the big corporations is job enough," says Hendrikson.

"There's probably an end to this somewhere. There's only so much wine you can drink."


The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will hold a policy workshop on Tuesday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m., to hear the presentation of a new study by the University of California on the implications for public policy and environmental impact of continued vineyard expansion. The next Town Hall Coalition meeting is scheduled for Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m., at the Occidental Community Center, corner of Bohemian Highway and Graton Road. Call 874-9110 for details.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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