The battle over more than 300 acres of undeveloped land on Sonoma’s coast owned by Artesa Vineyards and Winery isn’t over, but environmental groups have won a key round. A county judge has rejected several parts of Artesa’s environmental review of plans to plant vineyards on the property, blocking development of the site for now.
Three conservation groups who sued to stop development call it a victory for keeping the Sonoma Coast undeveloped and protecting the land. Artesa criticized the decision and is exploring options for moving forward. The ruling could also set a precedent for others looking to expand in California, specifically on the Sonoma Coast, which has proved a prime source for outstanding Pinot Noirs in recent years.
Artesa, based in Napa and owned by Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu, bought the land in 1999, at a time when just a few small vineyards dotted the rugged coast. In 2009, when executives first announced plans to cut down the redwoods and fir trees on 154 acres, roughly half of the parcel’s acreage, environmental groups cried foul.
The debate centers on whether the land merits conservation. Artesa executives point out that the land is zoned for agricultural use and was once used for timber, grazing and apple orchards. The trees in question are defined as second-growth—planted after timber companies chopped down the old trees several decades ago. Conservationists argue that it has returned to nature in recent years and should be left alone.
Under the terms of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Artesa commissioned an environmental impact review, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) approved the project. This was the first time CalFire had approved a review for a forest-to-vineyard conversion. A precedent had been set. The Sierra Club, Friends of the Gualala River and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit, arguing that the environmental review was insufficient and did not satisfy the provisions of CEQA.
On Dec. 6, Judge Elliot Daum sided with the conservationists, arguing that the review did not, to the court’s satisfaction, “explore all possible alternatives to the removal of the redwood trees for use as a vineyard site.” Judge Daum stated that the review failed to properly analyze and present alternatives that would be less damaging, such as using alternate land for the proposed vineyards. In addition, the court determined that CalFire did not address the “lost carbon sequestration” that would result from cutting down the redwoods.
"We welcome Judge Daum's ruling that permitting Artesa Winery's plan to clear-cut 154 acres of redwood forest does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act,” said Victoria Brandon, chair of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter. “We hope that Artesa will accede to this ruling, and seek both an environmentally suitable alternative location for their project and a conservation-oriented purchaser for the current forested site."
Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Artesa, criticized the decision and asked how farming on land once used for apple orchards was against the law. He added that the company was nonetheless buoyed by the fact that Daum dismissed other complaints raised, including that planting would disturb nearby Pomo tribal lands. “While we are disappointed with the ruling handed down by Judge Daum, we have not given up and are still looking into any and all possible actions, including appeal.”
While the ruling will likely prevent any vines on the property for now, Artesa may choose to conduct a more thorough review. Meanwhile, the opponents plan to keep up their complaints, hoping to push the company to sell the land to someone who will set the land aside for conservation.