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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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Author says big wine money has ruined Napa and Sonoma may be next

Bill Swindell, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

James Conaway is angry.

Author and journalist, Conaway has been the foremost chronicler of Napa

Valley for more than three decades. His “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” in 1990 told of the early pioneers who turned a family farming community in the valley into the premier wine region of the United States.

He followed that book with “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley” in 2002 that covered how new investors were changing the valley with their emerging focus on tourism and marketing higher-priced cult wines to consumers.

His new book does not hide his current feelings for Napa Valley. “Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity” takes aim at the investors and big companies, which he contends have transformed the area with crass commercialism that has overridden the quality of life and harmed the environment.

Read more at http://www.petaluma360.com/news/8179182-181/author-says-big-wine-money

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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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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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Some Napa and Sonoma vineyard owners under new rule for storm water runoff

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A new regulation aimed at improving the water quality of two tributaries that run into San Pablo Bay means vineyard owners in those watersheds will have to obtain new permits under more rigorous guidelines for their storm water runoff.

In approving the new rule last month, members of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board said they were concerned that vineyards could be discharging sediment and pesticides into the watershed that would, among other things, trigger erosion and threaten fish habitat.

Under the rule, land owners in the Sonoma Creek and the Napa River watersheds will be under three different levels of monitoring, from those who are largely adhering to the best environmental practices that have been certified by a third-party organization to those that will fall under more stringent oversight because they would have to make significant changes to management of their property.

The board did not say how many vineyard owners would be affected, but the rule would cover about 40 percent of the total land in both watersheds, representing about 59,000 planted acres. Those with fewer than 5 acres of vineyards would be exempted.

The wine industry was largely rebuffed in its push for major changes from a proposed draft issued by the board last year. Vintners estimate that it could cost from $5,000 to $7,000 to develop a farm plan to obtain the new permit, and the total could significantly rise to much more if they are ordered to make changes to their properties, such as retrofitting an unpaved road or monitoring water quality.

Read more at: Some Napa and Sonoma vineyard owners under new rule for storm water runoff | Sonoma Index-Tribune | Sonoma, CA

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Napa, Sonoma vineyards to have new watershed regulations

Cynthia Sweeney, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

SF Bay Water Board Napa River and Sonoma Creek Vineyard Program

Vineyard owners in the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds are facing new regulations after a decision by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting July 12.

The decision is the result of a lengthy environmental-impact report years in the making that addresses protection of species and habitat in the area.

The requirements are aimed at “regulating discharges from vineyard properties to achieve discharge performance standards for sediment and storm runoff and control pesticide and nutrient discharges,” the regulations said.

The action also aims to protect “habitat for federally listed steelhead populations, locally rare Chinook salmon populations and exceptionally diverse native fish assemblages.”

There was no timeline given as to when the adoption would go into affect, and specifics on reporting to the regional board were not announced.

The watersheds contain an estimated 162,000 acres of vineyard properties, with 59,000 acres planted in grapes, from which there are or may be discharges of sediment and concentrated storm runoff that affect water quality.

Read more at: Napa, Sonoma vineyards face new watershed regulations | The North Bay Business Journal

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Here’s how big wine gets to avoid environmental rules in Napa

Alastair Bland, KCET

According to Anderson, vineyard managers frequently install drainage systems incorrectly, fail to plant required cover crops to control erosion, incorrectly place deer fences in a way that prevents free passage of smaller wildlife, and use pesticides illegally. She says erosion control measures often fail to work, causing loose sediment to wash into creeks. There it can smother gravel beds used by spawning salmon and steelhead, which have almost vanished from North Bay watersheds. Many biologists have pointed to vineyards as a leading cause of the fish declines.

In 2006, Napa County officials issued a permit for The Caves at Soda Canyon, a new winery in the hills east of the city of Napa. As most such project permits do, the document set strict limits on how the developer could build his winery.

But The Caves’ owner Ryan Waugh allegedly ignored some of these limitations. Waugh dug an unpermitted cave into a mountain, and hosted guests at unapproved ridgetop tasting patios. After county officials became aware of the violations, they ordered Waugh in 2014 to block off (but not fill in) the illegal cave, stop the unauthorized wine tastings and muffle a noisy generator.

Neighbors had complained about the generator’s din, claiming that Waugh had promised years earlier to connect his facility to silent power lines. They’re primarily concerned, however, about the winery’s impacts on local traffic and congestion.

County documents report that Waugh followed through on all orders to correct the violations (something neighbors, who say they can still hear the generator, dispute). Then, Waugh submitted a request for a modification to his permit, and in April, the Napa County Planning Commission voted to approve it. The new permit brings the unauthorized components of his operation into full legal compliance while also increasing The Cave’s annual production limit from 30,000 gallons of wine to 60,000. The decision is a win for Waugh, who has reportedly put his winery on the market for $12.5 million.

Neighbors say that laws don’t apply to people invested in Napa County’s influential wine industry.

“You can just drill an unpermitted cave and have unpermitted tastings, and just get retroactive approval from the county, and get more allowed production than you initially had,” says Anthony Arger, who lives nearby. Arger is concerned that The Caves’ enhanced use permits will lead to a dangerous increase in vehicle use on Soda Canyon Road.

The county’s decision to clear Waugh’s record while allowing him to enlarge his business illuminates what Arger and other community activists say is part of a countywide problem. They argue that Napa County officials, especially those in the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, collude with the wine industry, ignoring violations of local rules, to increase wine production and tourist visits at the expense of the environment and local residents’ health and safety.

Read more at: Here’s How Big Wine Gets To Avoid Environmental Rules in Napa | KCET

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Sonoma County Winegrowers says its wines can be ‘100% Sustainable’ by 2019. What does this mean? 

Larrissa Zimberoff, CIVIL EATS

The world-famous wine-producing county has a five-year goal of certifying all its vineyards as sustainable—but with pesticides including Roundup allowed under the program, their definition of sustainable is controversial.

Wine is usually a fun topic, but in the Golden State, the fourth-largest wine-producing region in the world, it’s also big business: 85 percent of domestic wine comes from over 600,000 acres of grapes grown in California. Operating at this scale means the wine business must also consider land stewardship.

Two of the state’s biggest and best-known wine counties—the neighboring communities of Napa, which has more vintners, and Sonoma, which has more growers—are both working toward achieving goals of 100 percent sustainability within the next few years.

What does it mean if a vineyard claims its grapes are “sustainably certified”? Definitions of the term are wide-ranging, and, unlike the concrete rules of USDA Organic certification, few farming products are expressly banned, and there isn’t one comprehensive list of standards.

Both counties have been lauded for their progress—after Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) in 2014 launched a goal to reach 100 percent certified sustainable, the county has reached 60 percent certified, while Napa County is at 50 percent. But if you peel back the label, you’ll find controversy brewing.

SCW uses three defining principles to determine sustainability: Is it environmentally sound, is it economically feasible, and is it socially equitable? The topics covered under those principles are vast––water quality and conservation, energy efficiency, material handling, pest, soil and waste management, ecosystem, community relations, and human resources.

Despite the goal of having every grape grower in the county earn the certification, SCW is facing resistance from farmers who don’t want to be told how to operate, as well as growers and winemakers using organic practices who oppose the fact that others in their field can still claim they’re “sustainable” while also using the controversial weed killer Roundup (a.k.a. glyphosate) and other synthetic pesticides.

Of Sonoma County’s million-plus acres, 6 percent of available land—58,000 acres—is planted with grapes. Between 1,400 and 1,500 growers farm that 6 percent of land; 85 percent of those growers are family-owned and operated, and 40 percent are operations of 20 acres or less.

This means that if you grow grapes in Sonoma, you know your neighbors, you’ve probably been in the business for a few generations, and you pay dues to the SCW based on tons of grapes sold. Grape growers vote to assess their grape sales every five years, and the resulting money––currently about $1.1 million a year––goes to operating the commission. If you don’t sell grapes, or your winery uses its own grapes, you don’t pay.

In 2013, Karissa Kruse, the president of SCW, received an email from Duff Bevill, both a Sonoma grape grower and a 1,000-plus acre vineyard manager. “Karissa,” he wrote, “what would it take to get Governor Jerry Brown to recognize Sonoma County grape growers as sustainable, and to recognize us as leaders?” While Sonoma was an early adopter of sustainability, county assessments were all over the map, so Bevill’s question was apt. Kruse, who also owns a vineyard, thought, “Holy crap. How do I respond?”

Kruse first brought up the goal of 100-percent sustainability at an SCW board retreat. Dale Petersen, a grower from a multi-generational Sonoma family and the vineyard manager of Silver Oak Cellars, recalled: “She pitched it to a group of farmers and we looked at her and we looked at each other.

”The reception was lukewarm at best. No farmer relished being told what to do. Eventually the board of directors approved it, and officially declared the goal at the January 2014 annual meeting, which typically sees around 500 growers in attendance. Despite the overarching decree, countywide sustainability is still a voluntary commitment.

Read more at: Sonoma County Says its Wines Can Be ‘100% Sustainable’ By 2019. Is That Enough? | Civil Eats

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Calif. court rules against appeal filed by Sierra Club, others over vineyard permit 

John Sammon, LEGAL NEWSLINE

Two Sonoma County vintners received a judgment in favor of their proposed wine making operation when an appeal by the Sierra Club was turned back by the state’s 1st Appellate District Court of Appeals.

The court found in favor of the defendants Ronald and Ernest Ohlson, operators of the Ohlson Ranch, who applied for a permit to turn grazing land on their property into a grape vineyard. The Agricultural Commissioner of Sonoma County (commissioner) issued the permit after making a determination the issuance was a “ministerial” act, and therefore exempt from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) standards.

The commissioner’s decision was challenged by the Sierra Club, Friends of Gualala River and the Center for Biological Diversity, who asked for a writ of mandate, a court order to an agency or court to follow the law by correcting a previous action (issuing the permit).

Before the year 2000, grape growers in Sonoma County could plant vineyards without government review or permission.. Since then, new directives have been added, including submitting plans to address erosion controls, proper grading, drainage and other safeguards.

The Ohlsons filed an application in 2013 to turn 108 acres out of 132 acres of range land into a vineyard. The property included wetlands and marshy depressions but no trees or streams. Erosion was to be controlled by the use of anchoring grass, mulch, filter strips and cover crops.

Read more at: Calif. court rules against appeal filed by Sierra Club, others over vineyard permit | Legal Newsline

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In wine regions, vineyards and conservationists battle for the hills

Alastair Bland, YALE ENVIRONMENT 360

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,” says 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 says.

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 that are now 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,” says Hackett.

Read more at: In Napa Valley, Vineyards and Conservationists Battle for the Hills – Yale E360