Sonoma county wineries hoping to plant new hillside vineyards are facing a roadblock. The county board of supervisors has approved a four-month moratorium to study the issue. The move was prompted by a wave of new projects seeking approval and calls by environmentalists to update the county’s hillside farming regulations to address tree removal and erosion.
Facing a packed audience on Tuesday, the board unanimously approved an immediate halt to new vineyards as well as orchards on forested hilltops. Regulations approved in 2000 and updated as recently as 2009 allow for development of vineyards on slopes up to 50 percent, but offer no guidelines on tree removal.
“What’s important here is to give a little more clarity to vineyard developers and the community at large on how vineyards are going to be developed,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission, which cautiously supported the moratorium.
While the county will spend the next four months studying the issue, growers and wineries are wondering what the future will bring. “Our industry is very heavily regulated," said Russian River Winegrowers president John Holdredge of Holdredge Winery. "Each new regulation puts additional burdens on farmers, and the economic impacts on small family growers cannot be overstated. So, new rules need to be balanced and thoughtful."
Frey argued that a well-designed vineyard, properly maintained and planted with an effective cover crop between vines can control erosion equally well as a forest of trees. “The vineyard and the trees can be compatible,” he said. “I don’t think you can make a blanket statement.”
Developing even a small hillside vineyard can be a convoluted process, sometimes requiring approval by multiple county and state regulators, said winemaker Paul Hobbs. While developing a 10-acre vineyard east of Guerneville, Hobbs was told by consultants that it was permissible to clear several acres of trees. He was ill-advised. The county stopped work at one point last May, until it could conduct inspections.
Hobbs said he supports that the county is trying to clarify its rules but argued it is long overdue. “I just wish they had done it a lot earlier. They’re really behind the eight ball on this,” Hobbs said.
The winemaker’s main concern is that the county will suddenly change the rules on projects that are well underway. Hobbs said he has already spent several years and about $250,000 on his small vineyard. “The existing projects should be grandfathered in,” he said.
Most of the vineyards now being proposed for planting are located in western Sonoma County, with many located in the vast, mountainous and uninhabited northwestern region of the county, a region that local residents rarely venture into.
The proposed vineyards would range in size from a few dozen acres to the large Preservation Ranch project that would plant nearly 1,700 acres in the mountains of rural Annapolis. The developers behind that project, Premier Pacific Vineyards, also own Gap’s Crown on Sonoma Coast and dozens of other vineyards along the Pacific Coast.
While a few vineyard developments have drawn the ire of environmentalists because of the removal of trees, Holdredge argued that is the exception. “The vast majority of Sonoma County winegrowers,” Holdredge said, “farm sustainably, sensibly, respectfully and with a view toward passing things down to the next generation.”