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Battle for Napa Valley’s future: Proposed curb on vineyards divides county

Esther Mobley, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

…the valley floor was planted to capacity long ago. The only land still available to plant is on the hillsides — essentially, in the agricultural watershed, the area that concerns Measure C.

Fifty years ago Monday, Napa County passed an ordinance that has defined the course of its history and, one could argue, determined the history of California wine.

The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, passed by the Board of Supervisors on April 9, 1968, resolved to protect the valley’s most precious resource: land.

Here, land holds an extraordinary potential for producing fine wine grapes, and Napa residents wanted to protect it from strip malls and subdivisions. Agriculture, which in Napa means viticulture, was declared the “highest and best use” of this unique, unmatched slice of earth.

Now, a half century later, Napa has arrived at another turning point, this time with a June ballot initiative that could alter the course of its history again.

Measure C, the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, on a mail-in ballot to be tallied June 5, seeks to curb further vineyard development to preserve the streams, oak trees and natural habitats on the Napa Valley hillsides. It’s a proposal that has bitterly divided the valley.

Its supporters, led by local environmentalists Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, believe that after 50 years of unbridled success, the profit-hungry wine industry has brutally exploited the landscape. In the name of growing grapes, too many trees have been cut down, too much water contaminated. Measure C would mandate that vineyards have larger setbacks from streams and would set a hard limit on further deforestation.

Read more at https://www.sfchronicle.com/wine/article/The-battle-for-the-future-of-Napa-Valley-12816588.php?cmpid=gsa-sfgate-result

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Judge rules Napa County violated no California environmental laws in approving Walt Ranch

Kerana Todorov, WINEBUSINESS.COM

A judge has ruled Napa County violated no California environmental laws when it approved a hillside vineyard development east of Napa.

Environmentalist groups and a subdivision filed the lawsuits in January 2017, about a month after Napa County approved the development of 209 acres of vineyard on Walt Ranch. Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of Hall Wines in St. Helena, have owned the 2,300-acre property for more than a decade.

The plaintiffs, who argued their case in separate lawsuits, included Living Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, two environmental groups, as well as Circle Oaks County Water District, a water district serving a subdivision adjacent to the Walt Ranch.

Napa County Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, including that the environmental impact report is deficient in analyzing and mitigating the impacts of the development on groundwater, endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act or the effects or airborne drifts of pesticides.

Read more at https://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=196658

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Travel Is Napa running out of land for vineyards?

Esther Mobley, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

When Xavier Cervantes was scouting properties in Napa, he looked in all the usual hallowed ground for vineyards: Oakville, Rutherford, Pritchard Hill. The Mexico City entrepreneur got close — in escrow — twice, once with a property on Atlas Peak, once on Howell Mountain. Both fell through at the 11th hour.

It took seven years, but after exhausting all other possibilities, Cervantes finally purchased an 1,100-acre ranch in the far eastern reaches of Napa County, the edge of the county’s viable viticultural land: Pope Valley.

Pope Valley has long been considered Napa’s less-desirable corner. Although grapes have grown there since the 19th century, it’s never been named an American Viticultural Area. Over the peak of Howell Mountain, as close to Middletown as it is to St. Helena, the area is rarely discussed, scarcely developed and largely written off as too hot for high-quality grape growing.

But as the Napa Valley floor grows ever more crowded, and its land values skyrocket, activity moves outward. Like Coombsville before it — Napa’s youngest sub-AVA, long neglected until a recent surge of interest — Pope Valley is the latest Napa region to rise from obscurity for the simple reason that it still has plantable land.

It may also be Napa’s last.

Read more at https://www.sfchronicle.com/travel/article/Is-Napa-running-out-of-land-for-vineyards-12650466.php?cmpid=gsa-sfgate-result

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Westside Farms caught up in local fight for more restrictions of vineyards 

Janet Perry, THE WINDSOR TIMES

One of Sonoma County’s most highly acclaimed vintners has found his vision for the future at odds with citizens concerns over the impacts of commercial vineyards and their events.

David Ramey said that he “purchased the old pumpkin farm, which attracted substantial visitors and traffic, with the vision of building our family winery for coming generations. We’ve been leasing our two wineries in Healdsburg but do not own them, which involves a measure of uncertainty.”

Ramey was granted a conditional use permit by the County Board of Zoning Adjustments for development on his Westside Farms’ property on Westside Road.

The permit, issued Sept. 21, was appealed by environmental groups and citizens on Oct. 2. Appellants are calling upon the board of supervisors to “address the cumulative impacts from the commercialization of agriculture land, and define protective standards that preserve what brings tourists to Sonoma County in the first place, our rural character and small town charm.”

Craig Enyart, of Maacama Watershed Alliance, challenged the county supervisors in the appellants’ Oct. 5 press release announcing the appeal. “Enough is enough — it’s past time for the supervisors to provide staff, planning commissioners, applicants and taxpayers the guidance they’ve repeatedly requested, addressing general plan requirements and the cumulative impact issues raised during the 2015 Winery Working Group process.”

(In 2015, Sonoma County appointed 21 locals from among the wine industry, environmental groups and rural residents to a working group tasked with identifying the growing pains of the wine industry in Sonoma County and how best to mitigate those problems.)

Read more at: Westside Farms caught up in local fight for more restrictions of vineyards | News | sonomawest.com

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In California, conservationists face off with vineyard owners 

Alastair Bland, GREENBIZ

Kellie Anderson stands in the understory of a century-old forest in eastern Napa County, about 70 miles north of San Francisco. To her left is a creek gully, a rush of the water audible through the thick riparian brush. The large trees here provide a home for deer, mountain lions and endangered spotted owls, while the stream supports the last remnants of the Napa River watershed’s nearly extinct steelhead trout.

“They want to take all of this out,” said Anderson, who sits on the steering committee of a local environmental organization, Save Rural Angwin, named for a community in the renowned wine country of the Napa Valley. She is studying a project-planning map of the area as she waves her free arm toward the wooded upward slope. “It looks like this will be the edge of a block of vines,” she said.

Anderson and two fellow activists, Jim Wilson and Mike Hackett, were visiting a property of several dozen acres that the owners plan to clear and replant with grapes, the county’s principal crop. The project is one of many like it pending approval by Napa County officials, who rarely reject a vineyard conversion project in the Napa Valley, a fertile strip that runs northward from the shores of San Francisco Bay.

In Napa County, neighboring Sonoma County and farther to the north in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, concern is growing among some residents, environmentalists and scientists about the expansion of vineyards into forested regions and the impacts on watersheds and biodiversity. In Napa, an aerial view reveals a carpet of vines on the valley floor, which is why winemakers hoping to plant new vines increasingly turn to land in the county’s wooded uplands. At these higher elevations, “about the only thing standing in the way of winemakers are the trees,” said Hackett.

“Napa is getting really carved up,” said Adina Merenlender, a conservation biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who began studying the ecological impacts of vineyard conversions in the 1990s. “We see it all over the western and eastern ridges — it’s been relentless.” The transformation of shrub, oak and conifer habitat into new vineyards threatens wildlife migration corridors, she said. “We’re down to the final pinch points,” said Merenlender, referring to narrow corridors that eventually could become functionally severed from the relatively expansive wilderness areas in the mountains north of Napa County.

Federal fisheries scientists also have expressed concerns that the wine industry is harming endangered populations of steelhead trout. The creeks flowing off the hills of Napa County are critical to remnant populations of steelhead and salmon, and biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) say the irrigation of vineyards has reduced stream flows and clogged waterways with eroded soils. “Extensive water diversions, groundwater pumping, and increased agriculture (vineyards) water use during the dry season have reduced the extent of suitable summer rearing habitat  … throughout much of the Napa River watershed,” NMFS scientists wrote in the Napa River chapter (PDF) of a 2016 report.

Read more at: In California, conservationists face off with vineyard owners | GreenBiz

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Walt Ranch: Water concerns arise from Napa area vineyard’s plan to fell 14,000 oaks

Alastair Bland, NEWS DEEPLY

Residents are concerned that plans to cut down 14,000 oak trees to make way for grapevines will impact groundwater, fish habitat and climate change mitigation.

In the small community of Circle Oaks, California, a few miles east of the wine-soaked Napa Valley, residents are fuming over a wealthy Texas couple’s plans to cut down 14,000 adult oak trees and replant the cleared woodland with 209 acres (85 hectares) of irrigated grapevines. The project, opponents warn, will destroy fish and wildlife habitat, reduce the environment’s resilience to climate change, and drain groundwater reserves.

“They’re going to be using about two times the water our community uses,” says Ron Tamarisk, who has lived in the small town of Circle Oaks with his wife, Nancy, since the 1960s. Tamarisk says the community’s wells have never run dry before, but locals are concerned the proposed vineyard will deplete their supply.

“This is going to dewater Milliken Creek,” says Chris Malan, who lives in a rural unincorporated area just east of the city of Napa and very close to the project site. She is referring to a stream that feeds Milliken Reservoir, from which the city of Napa receives water.

The couple behind the project, Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, are already well established in the local wine industry. Craig Hall, who has led a career in Texas as a real estate developer, told Dallas News in 2014 that he expected to sell as much as $50 million in wines in 2015, mainly through the couple’s Hall and Walt wine labels. Now, he and his wife’s new project, first introduced in 2006, is on the verge of becoming reality. The proposal to expand their Walt Ranch vineyard was approved in December by Napa County’s board of supervisors.

Locals are outraged by the county’s lenience toward the wine industry in general, which many sources claim exerts political influence over county decision making.

“If this project goes through, it establishes a precedent that a rich newcomer can come in and get their way,” says Randy Dunn, a resident of the small town of Angwin, in the hills northeast of Napa. Dunn is also a winemaker. He grows 35 acres of grapes, mostly cabernet, and says he felled a single oak tree to plant his current vines in the mid-1990s.

The Walt Ranch developers initially planned to cut down almost 30,000 trees. They downsized the plan last year in response to general opposition and to questions about the legality of how the new vines would be irrigated. There was talk for a time of pumping in water from another watershed entirely, that of Putah Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.

Read more at: Water Concerns Arise from Napa Area Vineyard’s Plan to Fell — Water Deeply

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Op-Ed: The promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh

Jeffrey W. Holtzman, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County General Plan’s promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh is one step closer as county officials consider measures to help make the promise a reality. The challenge is whether we as a community have the foresight and political will to protect one of our most sensitive wetlands against the intense wave of vineyard and winery development while still maintaining a healthy and hearty wine industry.

Sonoma County has the capability to meet this challenge because there are tens of thousands of acres appropriate for growing grapes that are not in sensitive wetlands and we have a community commitment to an environmental ethos that values sustainability and sound planning.

The wetlands zone emanating along either bank of Atascadero Creek in the Sebastopol and Graton area is one of only a handful of freshwater marshes recognized in the general plan as important biotic zones. Wetlands are essential in order to manage floods, reduce pollution, recharge aquifers, and to provide a habitat for the flora and fauna that so enriches the lives of all Sonoma County residents and visitors.

Of particular significance is the prospect of restoring historical populations of endangered salmon and to encourage and nurture new nurseries in a habitat well suited for this purpose. Countless public and private organizations have spent millions of dollars and undertaken Herculean efforts to stave off the extinction of salmon in Sonoma County. Enacting the proposed changes to establish a Biotic Habitat zone in the Atascadero Marsh will support and strengthen community efforts to protect salmon rather than continuing to allow development that undermines these efforts.

The time to act is now, as a series of unfortunate, ill advised and sometimes illegal activities — driven primarily by intense pressure to develop the area into vineyards and wineries, have acted to degrade the Marsh. A permit granted here, an exemption granted there, and soon you have death by a thousand paper cuts unless action is taken.

Read more at: Close to Home: The promise of protection for the Atascadero Marsh | The Press Democrat

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Planning update for Sonoma County coast draws scrutiny 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Today’s public meeting runs from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Timber Cove Fire Station, 30800 Seaview Road.

More information and a copy of the draft plan are available online at www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/coastal.

Newly drafted guidelines for future development along the Sonoma Coast are inspiring interest and, in some cases, anxiety about potential policy shifts that some fear could alter their cherished coastline for the worse.

Land-use activists are especially concerned about broad language on the topic of agricultural tourism, marketing and promotion that they say paves the way for winery event centers of the sort that have sparked opposition inland, and they’re gearing up for a fight.

“We feel that the coast is a really inappropriate place for that to be happening — that the coast needs the protection that is already in the general plan, and that that language just opens up the coast to development by wineries,” said Sebastopol resident Reuben Weinzveg, a spokesman for Residents to Preserve Rural Sonoma County.

At issue is an update of the county’s Local Coastal Plan, required by the California Coastal Commission and meant to guide planning for the next 20 years in a roughly 86-square-mile area that includes the 55-mile coastline and inland areas along the Russian River estuary, the Estero Americano near Valley Ford and portions of the Gualala River basin. Agricultural uses account for 32 percent of the land-use designations in the area.

Read more at: Planning effort for Sonoma County coast draws scrutiny | The Press Democrat

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Turning water into wine

Will Parrish, EAST BAY EXPRESS

The unregulated growth of California’s wine industry in the state’s coastal regions is depleting groundwater supplies and devastating rivers and fisheries.

Along the border of Sonoma and Napa counties, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, hydrologist and forester Jim Doerksen took me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has scrawled annual rainfall totals on his laundry room wall for more than thirty years. It was an early-spring morning, and fog had draped the redwoods and Doug firs in a ghostly gray on the north-facing slope above Doerksen’s home.

In the 2005–06 rain year, Doerksen’s gauge recorded 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the water level that year in Mark West Creek — a tributary of the Russian River, historically known for its thrashing, silvery surges of salmon and trout — had declined by more than half.

The realization that his beloved creek was drying up, even in a wet year, remains clearly etched in Doerksen’s mind a decade later. As a former staff hydrologist for Santa Clara County, Doerksen is also keenly aware of what happened. He explained that the depletion of an underground aquifer, which feeds the creek, caused it to run dry.

“A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath this part of the Mayacamas Mountain range, dispensing water through pores … in the sub-surface rock,” he said. “When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — you end up with a dry creek.”

On the northwestern edge of Doerksen’s property, a sign strung to a tree describes this problem even more succinctly and identifies the culprit: “Vineyards SUCK! Water.”

Historically, much of California’s wine industry had been centered in the Central Valley. But by the latter part of the 20th century, the notion that the distinct character of a particular vineyard is expressed through the wines produced from it had become a popular notion among American wine drinkers. Grape growers responded by touting coastal ridgetop vineyards as boasting California’s best terroir. And so corduroy-like rows of grapes marched up hillsides in California’s northern and central coastal areas.

The growth of hillside vineyards was a free-for-all. “When it comes to agriculture, there’s no statewide regulation that prevents oak woodland and chaparral fragmentation and habitat loss,” explained Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management who has studied the conversion of woodlands to vineyards in Sonoma County. “It’s discouraging.”

In upper Mark West Creek, the conversion to vineyards started with the owner of a multimillion-dollar dentistry consulting business in Marin County — named Pride — that installed eighty acres of grapes on a ridgetop where oaks had previously stood. The next person to plant a ridgetop vineyard in the area was Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The coup de grace occurred when Henry Cornell, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs in New York City, purchased 120 acres and clear-cut the forests on his property to make way for a vineyard and winery.

Read more at: Turning Water into Wine | East Bay Express

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California’s thirsty wine-grapes

Will Parrish, THE ANDERSON VALLEY ADVERTISER

In the San Joaquin Valley heartland town of Livingston, located along Highway 99 between Turlock and Merced, the United States’ most lucrative wine corporation, E&J Gallo, operates the world’s largest winery: a place where serried ranks of massive, 200,000-gallon tanks tower over the surrounding countryside, in a compound ringed by security fences.

Were California its own nation, its wine industry would be the world’s fourth largest in terms of revenue. Roughly 570,000 acres in the state are under the vine, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (which chairman, incidentally, was president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers for 13 years). And about half of that acreage is located in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which operate in conjunction with the area’s enormous industrial wineries.

Much of this grape-based alcohol production is enabled by California’s unparalleled water infrastructure, which transmits water from north to south, thereby turning the arid lands that supply Gallo’s oil refinery-like facility into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region. On the other side of the Coast Ranges, and further north, resides another thirsty portion where the wine industry places inordinate demand on its watersheds.

As the American wine market moved increasingly upscale in the 1990s, Sonoma County emerged as an epicenter of the “premium grape rush” due to its wide variety of favorable microclimates and soils, as well as comparatively low land prices vis-a-vis Napa County to the east. In keeping with the prevailing market trend toward high-end varietal wines, a new division of the Gallo empire — Gallo of Sonoma — amassed a collection of sprawling estates in the verdant hills ranging north to south from Cloverdale to Sonoma.

The Gallo clan aimed not only to remake their company’s image; they were intent on remaking Sonoma County’s physical terrain in that image. Throughout much of the 1990s, Gallo’s fleet of D-9 excavators rumbled across the company’s vast tracts, steel mandibles akimbo, cleaving oaks and pines and Doug firs from their root systems. Gallo owns about 6,000 acres in Sonoma County in all.

Read more at: California’s Thirsty Wine-Grapes | Anderson Valley Advertiser