Winemakers and growers thinking of heading to the hills may want to reconsider when it comes to Sonoma County. With several high-profile hillside vineyard projects drawing renewed scrutiny from environmentalists and neighbors opposed to development, the county board of supervisors on April 24 toughened the rules for planting vines on forested hillsides.
The new rules, which focused exclusively on erosion control, pleased neither side of the debate. Growers argued that it went too far and added additional burdens and expense to vineyard development, while environmentalists wanted the regulations to address issues such as wildlife management, greenhouse gas emissions and impact on the landscape.
“We noticed an increase in the number of developments that proposed to remove trees on slopes,” said county agricultural commissioner Tony Linegar, adding that seven such projects, covering a total of 341 acres, were seeking approval. “We were definitely being proactive.”
The new guidelines would prohibit tree removal on the steepest hillsides, require new vineyards to be planted at least 50 feet away from unstable slopes and mandate three years of follow-up inspections. Tree roots stabilize hillsides, Linegar said, and tree canopies help reduce erosion.
Growers are turning to the mountains because flatlands suitable to grapes are increasingly scarce in Sonoma, plus many winemakers believe that hillside fruit produces better wine. Two of the most-controversial projects are the 116-acre vineyard planned by Napa-based Artesa Vineyards and the proposed 1,769-acre Preservation Ranch. Both are located near Annapolis in remote northwestern Sonoma County.
First proposed more than a decade ago and stalled by opposition from nearby residents, the Artesa project requires state approval. In April, officials signaled they would give it the green light.
Artesa, which is owned by Spanish wine company Grupo Codorniu, bought the 324-acre ranch in 1999. It was originally logged a half-century ago, and is already zoned for agriculture, and in the past has been used for sheep grazing and apple orchards. The winery, according to spokesman Sam Singer, will preserve 151 acres in their present condition. “We feel that the environmental feel of this project is in keeping with the agricultural history of the town itself,” Singer said.
If the state approves the project as expected, Singer said Artesa could start developing the vineyards later this year.
The massive Preservation Ranch project remains in limbo. California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), the state workers pension fund, holds a majority stake in the deal but in October said it was severing ties with Napa-based Premier Pacific Vineyards, a vineyard management firm and partner in the development. "CalPERS recently transitioned the vineyard portfolio to a new external manager," said Amy Norris, a CalPERS spokeswoman. "GI Manager and CalPERS will be working with consultants to determine the best outcome for Preservation Ranch."
Both Artesa and Preservation Ranch, as well as other projects that have already sought approval, will have to comply with the new guidelines.
Environmentalists in Sonoma County have been grumbling about the need for tougher hillside development rules ever since 2000, when the county’s existing erosion and sediment control ordinance was passed without any restrictions to tree removal. Things came to a head in late January when the board of supervisors approved a four-month moratorium on hillside planting to allow further study.
Growers, who said they were not consulted before the moratorium, were caught off guard. “The whole process went very fast,” said grower Steve Dutton. “It could have been handled a lot better.” The county, according to Dutton, could not point to a single hillside vineyard development as an example of the potential problem.
Dutton believes the county bowed to political pressure from residents who believe the vineyards will ruin their view. “Hillside aesthetics was an underlying driving force—as much so as water quality,” he said.
While Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission, said he’s satisfied the county kept the focus of the rules on erosion and water quality, he is concerned about the added cost growers will face. “Eighty percent of the vineyard owners in Sonoma own less than 100 acres,” Frey said. “For the small growers it’s going to put a lot more financial pressure on them.”
According to Linegar’s estimates, the cost of complying with the regulations could add $2,500 to a 10-acre vineyard and as much as $25,000 to a 100-acre project. Any required restructuring of the land would be an additional cost.
The new rules are expected to go into effect June 7.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions