head-vineyards

The Vine and Its Discontents
By Matt Gleeson

I first visit Annapolis, roughly 100 miles north of the Bay Area in far northwestern Sonoma County, in February. As soon as I turn onto the road that approaches from the south, I find myself driving through a patchwork of successive landscapes. At one moment, forest surrounds both sides of the road; the next moment, it breaks open into an expansive vista of vineyards curving across ridgetops–there is bright sun, and rows of vines pruned back for winter, gnarled and stubby, some spread on trellises like candelabra. Then, around another bend in the road, the forest of redwood, Douglas fir, and tanoak closes in again, and it seems momentarily impossible that those wide cultivated vistas were there at all. It’s as if two iconic California landscapes–the coastal forests and the trim, pastoral wine country–have been chopped up into a coarse mix in a blender.

I’m here to visit a major flash point in the North Coast’s battle over what is called “forest-to-vineyard conversion,” a bland term that doesn’t quite capture what is an intensive reworking of the land. To plant a vineyard where there was a forest, first you have to clear-cut all the trees and burn the remaining brush, then rip several feet down into the soil to remove all stumps and roots before finally adding large quantities of lime to tweak the soil’s acidity. The process goes deeper and is more permanent than any logging activity, since the goal is to wipe the land clean and create a blank slate as conducive as possible to the growth of one crop. To create a working vineyard, you must also grade the land; install antiwildlife fences; and build necessary infrastructure such as roads, workyards, and ponds to store water for irrigation. One may regard the grapes that follow with love or indifference, but either way the transformation of the land is total.

Annapolis is a remote place with a population of 401 as of the last census–sometimes it is called a town, sometimes a hamlet, technically it’s an unincorporated community. It sits on a series of flat-topped ridges in wrinkled, hilly terrain near the Gualala River, a few miles inland from the coast. There is no town center (or, as one local tells me, “There’s no there there”). There was a post office in a shed-like wooden structure abutting a sheep pasture, but it shut down near the end of 2011. The only real civic entities left are the local elementary school and a nearby historic schoolhouse, white with green trim, that occasionally hosts community events.

The indigenous Kashaya Pomo lived on these ridges for millennia, and they are now concentrated in the forty-acre Stewarts Point Rancheria a few miles away. The area’s redwood forests, logged since the 1800s, were clear-cut with particularly brutal thoroughness in the decades after World War II; descendants of ranchers or mill-owning families now share the recovering second-growth woods with back-to-the-land transplants who bought parcels sold off cheaply by timber companies. A nondenominational monastic community called Starcross established itself here in 1976, moving from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to devote itself to contemplation, humanitarian work, and now olive farming. More recently, vineyards have been planted around Annapolis, appearing first where the forest was already cleared–most of those vineyards I see driving in replaced what had once been ridgetop orchards and pastures.

It’s a pattern visible in many places across the county. The 1990s saw a vineyard boom all over the state, as demand for California wine soared. In many areas of Sonoma, winegrapes supplanted less lucrative crops, including the Gravenstein apples for which Sebastopol was previously renowned. Apples were once Sonoma’s leading farm commodity, but they dropped in value year after year–by 2000, only 5,000 acres of them were left in the entire county. Meanwhile, winegrape plantings increased from 36,000 acres in 1990 to about 60,000 acres today (more than one-twentieth of the county’s total land area). At this point, wine accounts for around two-thirds of Sonoma County’s agricultural revenue, a sign of a large, long-term shift in the identity of the Bay Area’s most rural county. And as the flat valley lands most obviously suitable for planting–those in the Alexander, Russian River, and Sonoma Valleys–have filled with vineyards, this has led to a push onto steeper slopes and wooded terrain, and into regions like Annapolis that historically were not considered wine country.

Though the forests and slopes may not be as easy to plant with grapes, much of this terrain is nevertheless prized by winemakers. “The vine is truly a mountain animal,” claims prestigious Sonoma winery Kendall-Jackson on its website, going on to boast of the number of vineyards it holds on hilltops and ridgelines. Many vintners argue that stressful conditions ultimately add character to wines. And new frontiers such as the Sonoma coast, with its steep ridges and foggy forests, have become more and more appreciated as terroir, the French term referring to the attributes of a very precise location that lend character to grapes grown there and to the wine made from them. Soil and climate are prime among these attributes–a certain mineral content, good drainage, particular temperature ranges and angles of sun exposure–fine gradations of which help one or another specific grape varietal thrive.

The Annapolis area is a case in point. It was not considered wine country until recently, though it did have one very small winery, simply named the Annapolis Winery. But in 1997 a new wave of development began when Kendall-Jackson’s parent company Jackson Family Wines bought land there. Annapolis had officially gained a reputation for its terroir. In this case, it was the presence of Goldridge soils (a well draining sandy loam), and a climate that was cool yet not overly prone to frost, that made the area seem right for the varietal pinot noir. The late 1990s were flush and optimistic years for the luxury wine market, and high-end wineries were growing particularly excited about pinot noir. The excitement spurred plans for more Annapolis vineyards, developed by a variety of interests ranging from local landowners to large-scale, established vintners. But expansion into this terroir could only go so far before the vineyards had to be carved out of commercial timberland covered in redwood forests, and so by the end of the 1990s, the area saw a number of applications for forest-to-vineyard conversions.

While debates grow across the county about the pressure being put on different landscapes by vineyard expansion, the battles here by the Gualala River have flared up in especially dramatic form. In 1999, Napa-based Artesa Winery bought 324 acres of land in the midst of Annapolis. Artesa was (and still is) owned by a large and centuries-old Barcelona company called Grupo Codorníu, which became famous in the 1800s for cava, the Spanish equivalent of champagne. It was a case of a wealthy company expanding its collection of terroir, investing in prime viticultural land. But the property was covered in large swaths of second-growth mixed redwood forest still in the process of recovering from heavy logging some fifty years earlier.

Cutting down trees on slopes in order to plant grapes already comes with its own particular set of impacts, but when the forest in question is redwood, it’s considered commercial timberland. This is what officially makes the Artesa project a “forest-to-vineyard conversion,” as well as what made it subject to CEQA–the California Environmental Quality Act, a state statute designed to ensure that if a development project has potentially severe environmental impacts, they are disclosed and publicly analyzed. To comply with CEQA, Artesa was required to prepare an exhaustive environmental impact report (EIR) before their project could move forward. While this bogged the project down for over a decade, the vineyard still proceeded slowly towards approval. This past spring, after a last-minute, three-month delay due to the high degree of controversy surrounding the project, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection1 officially certified Artesa’s EIR. It was the largest single conversion ever approved in Sonoma County: a 173-acre vineyard site that would permanently remove 154 acres of forest. A month later, two lawsuits had been filed over it, one by a coalition of three environmental groups and one by the Starcross monastery.

For opponents of vineyard conversions, Artesa is a pivot point that crystallizes both wider concerns about just when the wine industry’s expansion goes too far, and immediate questions about the adequacy of our institutions to properly protect California’s landscapes. Meanwhile, Artesa’s conversion may not remain the county’s largest for long because another one that is ten times its size, called Preservation Ranch, is looming in the background. Preservation Ranch is a massive 20,000-acre parcel (comprising one-tenth of the whole Gualala River watershed, one-fiftieth of the entire county) that forms a great arc cradling the Annapolis area. It’s a project that’s still in the works: one that currently hopes to convert 1,769 acres to winegrapes, with funding by CalPERS, the California state employees’ retirement system.

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The Gualala River’s course looks rather unusual on the map: a little blue crack that runs northward parallel to the coast, not far inland, like the fracture line of a flake about to chip off the mainland. The watershed–that is, all of the land that drains into the mainstem of the river and its tributaries–spans northwest Sonoma County and part of southern Mendocino County. Watersheds are an extremely useful concept when talking about environmental impacts, as they are a sort of natural boundary within which many ecological effects can resonate. Local group Friends of the Gualala River (FOGR) has as its mission the ecological integrity of the watershed, and it’s FOGR that has spearheaded many of the actions against the area’s vineyard conversions.

On the driveway that winds uphill to the Annapolis Winery, overlooking Artesa’s property, I meet Chris Poehlmann and Peter Baye of FOGR. Baye has twinkling eyes set behind small circular glasses in a round face and a trim salt-and-pepper beard, an urban touch added by a flat cap atop his head. A restoration ecologist with a PhD in botany, he bought property in Annapolis in 2002, hoping for a weekend getaway from the stressful work that was consuming him in the Bay Area. Instead he found himself living full-time in Annapolis and fighting ecological battles in his own backyard. When you talk with him he caroms from subject to subject with breathless excitability, displaying an energy that makes it easy to imagine how he might be drawn deep into any issue that touches him. Poehlmann, lean and seasoned looking, builds interactive exhibits for institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Oakland Museum; in 1996 he moved to Annapolis and constructed himself a workshop from straw bales, an environmentally friendly architectural technique. Later I speak to a third FOGR member, Dave Jordan, a web developer who left Silicon Valley for the small town of Gualala eleven years ago. All three men represent a newer generation of transplants who came to the area for its remoteness and beauty and found these qualities threatened.

There is no FOGR office and very little hierarchy: volunteer members communicate by e-mail from their own homes and hold periodic meetings. FOGR didn’t organize itself as an antivineyard group. In fact, its current form coalesced in the 1990s to fight a scheme by Ric Davidge–an Alaskan who served in the Reagan administration and is now known as a “water entrepreneur”–to collect freshwater from the mouth of the Gualala River and use barges to tow it in giant bags to San Diego where it would be sold to provide a portion of the municipal drinking water supply. But FOGR is concerned with the health of the watershed’s forests, and at this point, Dave Jordan tells me, vineyard conversion is probably the “number-one threat” to these forests. There are other threats, he relates, but “the industry that’s working to fragment the largest amounts of forest acreage is currently the vineyard industry.”

While it was easy to rally support against nonlocal Davidge making a profit off of the Gualala’s water, in the case of vineyard conversions FOGR has entered into conflict with other locals who had hoped to capitalize on the increasing value of high-end winegrapes. One was a mill-owner named Phil Campbell who planned on converting some of his property to vineyards; another was a Las Vegas lawyer who bought land with the express intention of planting grapes, reportedly saying that he had “a passion for pinot.” In both of these cases, FOGR (along with the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club) ended up suing the California Department of Forestry because it had granted the landowners permits with what is called a “negative declaration”–a statement that no potential environmental consequences whatsoever are foreseen. The courts, however, agreed with FOGR that there could indeed be consequences to converting timberland to vineyards and required the proponents of these projects to produce an EIR. It’s a lengthy and expensive process, which is possibly why these landowners never planted their grapes–though I’m told by Dave Jordan that Campbell had already optimistically cut down his eighty-eight acres of timber before discovering that he would not be receiving a vineyard permit after all. This meddling doesn’t make FOGR popular with everyone, and in rural Annapolis these disputes between neighbors don’t always remain civil. In one case, Poehlmann tells me, a local youth was hired to dump a load of rocks at the entrance to his driveway, blocking him in.

Baye and I walk along Artesa’s property line: a large open field across the road from Annapolis Winery and, past it, a span of trees descending in the direction of the sea and surging up again in a far ridge. Young Douglas firs and redwoods (only about ninety feet tall) sway gently; the property is peaceful, with no one on it, and it’s hard to picture it razed and replaced with the bustle of tractors and equipment. An urbanite myself, I’m reminded that 154 acres is a great deal of land (it’s somewhere over forty Sacramento city blocks). Like most of the forest around Annapolis, it’s been abused by logging; Artesa has used the fact that it’s “exclusively second-growth” to argue that it doesn’t deserve the same preservation as old-growth forest. Baye disagrees. “There’s real habitat in there,” he says. After showing me a certain local species of manzanita, he points to the healthy young firs encroaching on a clearing and says, “Look how vigorously the forest reclaims the land when you let it.”

As we walk he speaks enthusiastically about what the Gualala River watershed currently is–a remote, low-population area slowly regaining its health. Classified “impaired” by the California Department of Fish and Game because of all of the sediment and gravel released into the water by earlier clear-cutting, the Gualala River nevertheless manages to support a population of steelhead trout (a federally threatened species) and even some coho salmon (classified as federally endangered, the most severe designation for a species). Baye tells me the river is slowly recovering as sediment works its way downstream. Carving vineyards into the surrounding forest could, he believes, be potentially disastrous for its recovery. Even apparently isolated projects could have effects that reverberate throughout the watershed, as habitat for plant and animal species gets whittled down, antiwildlife fencing meant to protect grapes cuts off pathways for animals, pesticides wash into streams, and the combination of tree loss and brand new roads ends up eroding a whole new load of sediment into the watercourses. Perhaps the most diffuse, global impact, Dave Jordan points out later, stems from the fact that the Gualala River watershed’s redwood forests are Sonoma County’s greatest carbon sink–that is, the trees trap massive amounts of carbon that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. It’s clear that Jordan emphatically defines this land as forest and not terroir: “Grapes,” he says, “grow all over the planet. Maybe they grow better in some places than others, but they grow all over the place. There are very few places on the planet that redwood forest grows.”

After our walk, Baye and I end up talking on a picnic table outside the tasting room of the Annapolis Winery. Baye half-jokingly calls it the only public space in Annapolis. Owner Barbara Scalabrini, a gentle woman with honey-colored bangs and a sweet, almost bemused smile, tells me that she and her husband Basil moved there as back-to-the-landers in 1976 and turned their basement winemaking hobby into a career, converting an abandoned ridgetop apple orchard to grape production. She seems distraught at the idea of the area’s forest being torn out for any reason. In fact, FOGR has hosted at least one event at her winery. It serves to illustrate a point that every FOGR member I speak to stresses. “We’re not against wine,” says Baye, “we’re against cutting down forests to make wine.” Once the forest is gone, even “organic” growing practices are beside the point, he tells me. “It’s like saying, ‘We use the highest quality gravestones for all the people we kill.’”

When we finish talking and Baye heads home, I hang around, enter the tasting room, and enjoy a bit of the pinot noir.

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The concern with vineyard expansion isn’t limited to environmental nonprofit organizations–government agencies have been taking note, too. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, often pronounced as “nymphs”) is the federal agency charged with protecting both salmon and steelhead trout under the federal Endangered Species Act. And this has led the agency to start scrutinizing the effects of vineyard conversions on the water in Sonoma’s rivers, where these species come in from the ocean to breed every year.

Salmon and steelhead are hanging on tenuously in Sonoma right now. NMFS fishery biologists Bill Hearn and Rick Rogers tell me that the greatest threats to habitat in the rivers don’t come from Sonoma County’s cities, which, for all their thirst for water, have a well-functioning reservoir system. The big threats instead are erosion from roads and the amount of water taken by rural domestic development and agriculture–which in Sonoma mainly means vineyards. In many crucial areas that have recently seen an enormous bloom of new vineyards, NMFS and other groups are just beginning to gather hard data, but so far it seems to indicate a real impact. A nine-year study just published by UC Berkeley biologists found a definite correlation between vineyard development on streams and higher death rates for juvenile steelhead in those streams.

Back in Annapolis, Peter Baye tells a similar tale of disturbing drops in flows that FOGR measured in the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River, directly below a Kendall-Jackson vineyard. In August, Baye discovered that flows upstream of the vineyard were about normal for that time of year, while below the vineyard they were significantly reduced. If Kendall-Jackson’s operation is indeed affecting the stream levels, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the vineyard is taking exceptional amounts of water. It may instead simply show just how sensitive the Annapolis area’s waters are to small diversions in key places. Baye believes that a well exists on Kendall-Jackson’s property close to a spring feeding the stream.2 Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley biologist who has studied vineyard expansion, tells me that the impact on rivers depends less on how much water is used than precisely where water is taken. “Everything in watershed science is location, location, location,” she says.

She also adds that timing plays a critical role, with impacts magnified when grape farmers all take water at precisely the same time. This has happened in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties due to frost protection techniques–during spring frosts, farmers guard the developing buds on grapevines by spraying a protective mist of water over them, often pumping directly from a river. Farmers, naturally, all need this water at exactly the same time when the frost hits. Frost protection has caused such dramatic impacts on stream levels that the state passed an earlier regulation attempting to ban the technique without individual farmers drawing up a water-use plan, a proposal farmers quickly took to court. In late September, a Mendocino judge overturned the ban, calling it an overreach of state authority that might lead to “catastrophic economic consequences.”

Regardless, it’s becoming clear that vineyard development impacts the state of the rivers. Recognizing the touchiness of the situation, many vineyards promise to dig reservoirs to catch rainfall and not to use their wells for irrigation. Artesa has made such a promise about its future Annapolis vineyard. But in the end, assertions like this are impossible to enforce: the county has no legal restrictions on how much groundwater can be pumped from wells on private land and doesn’t monitor the activity.

Cutting down forest for a vineyard conversion just compounds the issue. In general, forests trap rainfall and slowly release cold water into the streams throughout the year.3 But when the trees are completely ripped out, flows during the rainy season can become more violent, while the rivers become more likely to dry up during the hot and rainless summer months. Meanwhile, large amounts of sediment once held stable by the trees may steadily run off and choke the stream or fall in severe landslides. In this way, even forest removal high up on ridges can affect both the quantity and quality of the water in the rivers below.

As all of these findings become clearer, county rules are gradually changing to address loss of trees in local ecosystems, though the rules’ effectiveness is hotly debated. In 2005, county officials approved a Timberland Conversion Ordinance imposing a new rule that for every acre of timberland converted to some other use, two acres must be preserved. Artesa’s Annapolis project would actually be illegal under this law unless the winery bought more forest to set aside and preserve, but so far officials have indicated the winery’s plan will be grandfathered in under previous rules.

Last January the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors took another step towards preserving local trees, approving a temporary moratorium on all new vineyard conversions involving tree removal on forested slopes. The moratorium was in part a reaction to the high number of conversions being proposed. Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar told me he asked for it because when he came into office at the beginning of 2012, he found applications for seven such projects, adding up to 340 acres, waiting on his desk and more informal queries piled up behind them.

The moratorium ended in June with the approval of a new beefed-up erosion ordinance for agricultural lands, which takes account of tree removal for the first time. While some argue that the new regulations don’t allow the government enough discretion to deny permit applications, Linegar tells me he thinks it’s quite difficult to plan a vineyard that removes a significant amount of trees and still meets the new county standards. And it’s true that the new rules seem to have given pause to vineyard developers: all seven of those applications on Linegar’s desk were either withdrawn or altered. Still, environmental groups worry that the county isn’t doing enough to stop harmful projects, and both NMFS and the Sierra Club have said they would prefer that Sonoma County adopt a measure similar to neighboring Napa County to make any project with more than five acres of tree removal subject to CEQA. Bill Hearn, the fishery biologist, says he and his agency “still believe the process should be more open and transparent. CEQA is a valuable process.”

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Of course, complying with CEQA doesn’t guarantee that everyone will be satisfied with a project. In fact, it’s exactly the outcome of the CEQA process that opponents to Artesa are protesting in the Gualala River watershed.

The transparency Hearn speaks of was the goal of Artesa’s EIR process, in which experts were hired to analyze all possible environmental impacts, the public was given a period to comment, and the Department of Forestry was charged with overseeing and assessing the report. Artesa’s plan did end up having to include a variety of mitigation measures to address project impacts–a buffer of trees will be left around the creek running through its property, for example, as well as small preserves for rare plants–and with these in place, the Department of Forestry approved the document and declared that the project’s impacts wouldn’t be significant.

Friends of the Gualala River, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club, and another environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity are jointly suing the Department of Forestry, arguing that they didn’t properly evaluate all of the vineyard’s impacts. The lawsuit is the opponents’ only option to legally challenge their real target, Artesa, but I also detect genuine frustration with the Department of Forestry for approving what the environmentalists believe is a shoddy document. The EIR itself is a daunting report thick with technical verbiage–reading it is something akin to trying to eat a bowl of sawdust, and it’s difficult for nonscientists (including me) to assess its conclusions.

One of the people I contacted to check the veracity of the environmentalists’ concerns was Adam McKannay, an environmental scientist with the Department of Fish and Game. He cautiously stressed that this part of the coast is “new territory” and that scientists don’t yet know the real effects of vineyards there, which will require monitoring them for a period of time. But he did acknowledge that converting forest to vineyard would have far deeper and more permanent effects than current logging practices, making it unlikely that the impacts of Artesa’s project would be insignificant, as the Department of Forestry claimed. “Logging doesn’t remove the natural forest floor,” he says. “It leaves the root mass in place, and within years of logging you have a dense understory that’s regrown. The troubling thing is that timber harvesting is a renewable resource when done correctly, but a [vineyard] conversion is permanent.”

Another key complaint in the suit is that an EIR is required to consider alternatives to a proposed project, yet the Department of Forestry didn’t analyze any options that wouldn’t require cutting down forestland, despite acres of treeless land available in the county for planting grapes. Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, indirectly corroborated this point when he told me that it shouldn’t be necessary to cut down forest to make room for vineyard growth right now. The recession hit the wine industry hard in 2009 and 2010, Frey continued, leading to plummeting grape prices and production and mounting foreclosures. For the first time in decades the acreage of active vineyards started to drop, meaning that already-existing vineyard land wasn’t being farmed anymore. “We can have some growth and still keep the footprint we have,” Frey told me.

Opinions among Annapolis locals unaffiliated with FOGR can be complex. I spoke to one direct neighbor of Artesa’s parcel named Robin Wellman, who is by no means antiwine: she has all the necessary permits to plant vineyards on a nonforested part of her own land, though she has seen very little interest from anyone with the means to help fund such a project. About Artesa’s conversion next door, she told me, “I don’t think the clear-cutting is okay with anybody.” But, she added, at this point Artesa has its private property rights and is in Annapolis to stay, and she believes negotiation would be more productive than combat.

Other neighbors, however, are upset enough to continue the fight. The Starcross Monastic Community is adjacent to the proposed project, and its members have been complaining that the planned site for the vineyard’s equipment yard is a location that is very audible in their chapel. According to Starcross founder Brother Toby, Artesa ignored eight years of invitations to conduct a sound study at the monastery and backed out of negotiations to change the yard’s location. Yet the final EIR states that noise complaints were negotiated to Starcross’s satisfaction, a claim Starcross objects to in their own lawsuit against the Department of Forestry. Starcross also charges that the impacts of pesticides and water use on direct neighbors, in an area where residents drink from wells that tap a meager supply of groundwater, were not properly investigated.

Resistance has also come from the Kashaya Pomo tribe. Legally, the Kashaya don’t have a claim on Artesa’s land: the tribal reservation at Stewarts Point is several miles away, and in recent history Artesa’s parcel was privately owned ranchland. But the tribe originally lived in villages all along the nearby coast, and the ridges that are now called Annapolis hosted the highest inland concentration of villages. The Artesa conversion sits squarely within this well used ancestral territory, and some tribal members suspected that it might contain the site of an ancient former village called Kabatui.

The Department of Forestry attempted to address this concern by conducting an archaeological survey, which didn’t positively identify either Kabatui or any other burial grounds. However, three sites containing stone artifacts were found, as well as a shell midden (a heap where shells and other domestic waste were once discarded, a sign of former habitation and use), all of which Artesa agreed to preserve and work around. The winery also committed to keeping an archaeologist on hand during project construction in order to document any new artifacts turned up by the bulldozers, as well as to contacting tribe members if human remains are unearthed.

The survey has been severely criticized by tribal ally Peter Schmidt, a professor of archaeology who teaches at University of Florida. Schmidt’s fieldwork is mainly in Africa now, but he grew up in Sonoma and became close with the Kashaya Pomo when, as a teenager, he helped rebuild the Round House, the tribe’s most important ceremonial building, on the Stewarts Point Rancheria. “I’ve assessed EIRs all over the West,” he tells me in a slow-burning, forceful voice. “This is the sloppiest bunch of junk I’ve ever encountered. It leads me to believe that California is in trouble.” Schmidt says that he sees no evidence that systematic surveying was conducted for Artesa’s EIR, and he calls the reports “haphazard.” The supposed shoddiness of the archaeological survey is in fact a point in FOGR’s lawsuit: the suit specifically targets the fact that the EIR surveyors were stopped by areas thick with brush that they claimed could not be systematically surveyed without being destructive; to protect these unsurveyed areas, the EIR somewhat counterintuitively suggests that archaeologists follow Artesa’s bulldozers through them to document what is discovered. In fact this is a common and accepted practice for EIR surveys in California. Schmidt’s point, though, is that what he calls California’s “absurdly elementary” standards are insufficient for an area he considers to be rich enough in Kashaya history to be declared an archaeological district.

While remains and traces and artifacts are debated, Kashaya Pomo tribe members still live only a few miles away, and certain tribal elders have spoken out against Artesa’s conversion. Sisters Violet Parrish Chappell and Vivian Parrish Wilder wrote, “It was not so bad when the area was used for grazing, but here they are going to flatten the land.” What’s now Artesa’s property was a place where as children they collected berries, manzanita wood for spoons and awls, and redwood bark and sap for medicine. When I speak to the eighty-one-year-old Chappell, it’s clear that she connects the vineyard issue with the larger history of land theft in California, a history that ultimately reduced her tribal territory to a forty-acre reservation (roughly one-fourth the size of Artesa’s proposed vineyard). From her point of view, the forest that would be removed on Artesa’s property is at least as important a part of Kashaya heritage as archaeological antiquities. She says of the oaks and redwoods and herbs that the project would eliminate, “That’s our culture. . . . That’s Kashaya medicine.”

Tribal elders and tribal government are, of course, two different things, and for years the government of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of Stewarts Point Rancheria4 made few complaints about Artesa’s handling of the situation. But last February a new tribal chairman was elected, and the tribal council unanimously passed a resolution opposing Artesa on grounds of “unsound and destructive environmental practices” as well as “disruption and desecration of sacred sites, archaeological sites, and traditional cultural places.” When I spoke to the new Kashaya chairman, thirty-one-year-old Emilio Valencia, he told me, “The tribe understands that people need to make money. But that’s good land. There’s other places where you don’t have to cut trees.” The tribe demanded “government-to-government consultation” in its resolution, and Bill Snyder of Department of Forestry tells me he did sit in on a tribal council meeting. But as of early fall 2012, after the approval of Artesa’s project, it was unclear if the complaint would be pursued further.

Artesa, which did not return any calls or e-mails for this article, has continued to move forward with the project despite the lawsuit. Legally, once the rainy season ends Artesa is free to start cutting any time they like. While Artesa might be fined if the EIR is later revoked by the lawsuit, the courts would be unlikely to stop the project entirely. Most likely, the Department of Forestry would simply have to go back and improve the project’s EIR. With this in mind, opponents have continued their fight outside the legal realm. Petitions against Artesa’s vineyard have gathered tens of thousands of signatures–one circulating in California, which FOGR presented to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in a January protest, and another Spanish-language petition on a website hosted in Codorníu’s home country of Spain. Those opposed to Artesa’s project hope that at some point the winery may find it too expensive to have the public associate them with what activists call “chainsaw wine.”

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The term “chainsaw wine” conjures up a strange association, one that reveals the many contradictory themes that underlie the state’s wine industry. It’s hard to connect environmental destruction with the sunny, benign images the California wine industry tends to invoke. Wine is a drink with a deeply positive aura, and that aura comes from a few sources. One is the collective pride we take in our world-class wines, a pride that embodies a fundamental part of California identity. Wine is a complex art rooted in history, and in California we’re proud to have taken our place in a long cultural tradition that was transplanted here by European immigrants. Our winemaking skills are just as refined as those of older European cultures–we cite the famous 1976 blind tasting in which California wines were favored over French to prove it–and our lands are just as rich and fertile, ideal for growing high-quality grapes. Another source of wine’s aura is the set of images surrounding the beverage, which are avidly claimed by the wine industry: shining glasses full of ruby liquid, rolling hills, everything from healthy family toil to leisurely bon vivant pleasure, all connected to a love of our land. It’s hard to find a winery, including Artesa, that doesn’t proclaim “stewardship” of the land as one of its values.

Alongside these pleasant associations lies a simple fact: there’s an enormous amount of money to be made in the wine industry. Ninety percent of the U.S.’s wine is made in California, and in 2011, sales of California wine within the U.S. totaled almost $20 billion. Add in the benefits from wine tourism, and it provides the backbone of economies like Sonoma’s. Yet despite the intense connection to the local area invoked when advertising wine, the top players in the industry tend to be multinational conglomerates owning land in both the Old World and the New. Classic California wine families like Gallo and Mondavi have expanded their business to such multinational proportions. Artesa can correctly claim to be “family-owned,” but the Barcelona-based Raventós family of Codorníu happens to own wineries on three continents and in the 2000s bought an entire distribution company called AV Imports. The most important family-owned winery in Sonoma is Kendall-Jackson; late owner Jess Jackson used the money he earned from a successful career as a high-end attorney to build his wine business, becoming a billionaire in the process. His company currently owns 15,000 acres of vineyards. Profits naturally attract more capital, but so does the very aura and prestige of wine itself. It’s not rare for already-wealthy people to escape high-stress lives in finance or the tech industry and use their money to pursue the California dream of their own wine label (providing an interesting counterpart to those FOGR members who left similarly frenetic careers to enjoy Sonoma’s forests).

Meanwhile, the complicated structure of markets within the industry might surprise wine lovers who hold the simple image of a family farmer involved in a single soil-to-table process. In fact, the wineries that actually make the wine are often quite separate from the vineyards that grow the grapes. Many high-end wineries own little vineyard property of their own, instead contracting to buy grapes on the market. Others own multiple vineyards that they use to both supply grapes for themselves and sell to other wineries.

In this context, the concept of terroir becomes more fraught. Often wineries appeal to love of place in holistic and even spiritual terms, suggesting a geographical essence magically distilled into a bottle. But the wine industry has increasingly turned terroir into more of a cold, hard real estate investment than a unique place to be loved. And in a more technical sense, when land is good terroir, that definition foregrounds soil, climate, and two organisms: grapevines and humans. The appreciation of terroir can therefore be seen as fetishized and narrow in its values. I find it strangely close to what happens with lands rich in mineral resources like oil or precious metals: everything else must go.

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The notion of terroir as a good real estate investment lies behind the massive vineyard conversion project called Preservation Ranch. According to the last available figure, this development would, if approved, remove 1,769 acres of forest in Sonoma County to make way for vineyards. Originally a venture proposed years ago by Premier Pacific Vineyards–a company established not to make wine, but rather to make large-scale investments in terroir and supply grapes to luxury wineries–the project is now owned and backed by California’s public employees’ retirement fund, CalPERS. It’s still unclear in just what form Preservation Ranch will go forward–if it goes forward at all–but it hovers in the minds of everyone I speak to about vineyard conversions. Its draft EIR (which will be reviewed by Sonoma County, not by the Department of Forestry) is still in progress and probably won’t be finished before 2013. There have in fact been recent delays by Preservation Ranch in funding its EIR, and the current representative for the project (a former Napa County planning director hired by CalPERS) did not respond to my queries for an interview.

Preservation Ranch is unique in that it explicitly presents itself as an opportunity for ecological restoration. Project proponents own a massive piece of land, only 9 percent of which would be converted to vineyards. The profits from these vineyards would then be used to help restore and sustainably manage the remaining 91 percent of the parcel, which has been heavily logged. In late 2011, Eric Koenigshofer–a former Sonoma County supervisor who was acting as an agent for Preservation Ranch at the time–pitched the vineyards as an economic engine to help fund restoration of a “degraded” area. “Everything’s been sucked out of it, in terms of its economic value, over the last eighty years of logging,” he said. Vineyards would “add real value.”5

Environmental groups are critical of the project, concerned it’s an attempt to “greenwash” a destructive project to make it look palatable. Dave Jordan of FOGR points out that much of Preservation Ranch’s land is far too steep to plant on, and so those hundreds of acres of grapes will be spread out on the ridgelines across the entire property, rather than on a neat little tenth of the property cut out of one corner. Moreover, he is concerned about the fact that Preservation Ranch would involve a massive amount of infrastructure, including dozens of miles of wildlife fencing, new roads, five gravel mines, and luxury homes. Fellow FOGR member Baye worries that this would create a “can-opener effect” that the remote area couldn’t handle, as development attracts more development, vineyards attract more people, and roads open up previously inaccessible places. Meanwhile, although wine may be viewed as one of the most profitable ventures to be had in Sonoma, FOGR members look at the dramatic drop in grape prices during the recession and tell me they fear that Preservation Ranch could turn out to be a bad investment. “The worst case,” says Dave Jordan, “is if Preservation Ranch cuts down 1,800 acres of redwood forest, fragments it, puts in all of their wildlife fences, builds the roads, and then goes bankrupt. Because then they don’t have the money to fund the preservation they claim they’re going to do!”

Preservation Ranch has been in the works for years, but as Jordan suggests, it’s undeniable that it and all other future Sonoma County vineyards will be subject to the whims of a wine market that is increasingly more difficult to predict. In the summer of 2012, the wine industry began to report increased pressure to plant more grapes again. This was not due to a turnaround of the recession, but rather to several poor harvests in the last couple of years: grapes are scarce, the reserve of bulk wine is shrinking, and prices are up. So far this has mainly led to wine companies buying and selling preexisting vineyards. But if it ends up leading to a spike in new vineyard conversions that eat into other landscapes, the risk seems to be that pressures from temporary, even volatile, situations are allowed to dictate a very permanent activity.

Artesa’s project is so controversial precisely because it may set a crucial precedent for the county, paving the way for future projects like Preservation Ranch. This precedent could also filter outside of the county’s borders: vineyard expansion has been booming across California, from Lake County to Santa Barbara. In places like Annapolis, this trend happens to coincide with the decline of logging in the coastal forest regions, which has left an economic vacuum to be filled. The particularly irreversible damage done by vineyard conversions has fueled opponents’ battles, and they have a point when they warn that it may not be wise to allow unfettered development by those who can afford to do it. If someday the demand for California wine deflates, or if California decides that it values other things more–salmon, redwoods, Native American culture, Gravenstein apples–it would be a shame to find some of those things erased. The danger may also be that our culture–along with the agriculture in some parts of our region–comes to look more and more like a monocrop, and our image of the land we inhabit and make use of more resembles a two-dimensional landscape stamped onto a wine bottle label.

Notes:

  1. The department’s full official name is the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, but I’ve simply used “Department of Forestry” in this article. I did so both because the department is often referred to as such, and because it makes the department’s role in this project–which has almost nothing to do with fire protection and a lot to do with forests–a bit easier to comprehend.
  2. For their part, Jackson Family Wines would not comment on any details relating to their Annapolis vineyard.
  3. A process made possible by the forest’s root systems, which hold porous soil stable, and by the forest floor’s layers of duff, humus, and moss.
  4. “Kashaya” and “Kashia” are alternate spellings, both accepted. I have followed the lead of Native American scholar Greg Sarris in using “Kashaya” in this article, but the tribal government takes the spelling used above in its official name.
  5. Preservation Ranch, as large as it is, represents just one-third of a truly enormous parcel called the Longview Tract, a piece of land once owned by a Willits-based timber company. The other two portions of the tract have since been purchased by the nonprofit Conservation Fund, which is currently managing one portion as a timber-producing forest. Trees are logged slowly to ensure the forest continues to grow sustainably. The profit might not be quite what shareholders in a timber corporation are used to, but the venture does support itself while providing local jobs, providing a counterpoint to Preservation Ranch proponents’ claim that their battered forests have no monetary value left in them.