By James Laube, senior editor
The images are still fresh after 40-plus years ... I grew up in a child's wonderland.
Our backyard in Anaheim, Calif., faced a sprawling orange grove, where we could play hide-and-seek, build forts and hurl oranges. Each day I walked through that orange grove to Sunkist Elementary School, tightly framed by rows of orange trees. With them came the sights and smells of agriculture -- from orange blossoms and burning smudge pots in the spring to the scent of ripe oranges at harvest.
The place where I grew up is still called Orange County, but commercial oranges are no longer part of the scenery or lifestyle. Back in the late 1800s, Anaheim also had a thriving grape and wine industry, but that too is only a distant memory. Disease wiped out the vineyards, and they were never replanted. Today Orange County is just one urban area after another, linked together by a web of streets and freeways, overpasses and off-ramps.
I think back to the old days when people debate the future of agriculture, open space and urban sprawl in California's wine country. These topics are causing consternation in Napa and Sonoma counties and on the Central Coast.
In Napa Valley, America's most famous winegrowing area, land is scarce and expensive. The dream of owning a vineyard or winery is elusive except for the most dedicated, wealthy or well-connected. Many new vineyards have been planted on hillsides -- some quite steep and remote -- and are sometimes even accompanied by luxurious ridge-top homes. Even winemakers who have lived among the vines in Napa for years don't want to live next to a new vineyard or winery.
In Sonoma County, huge chunks of open space have been converted to massive vineyard properties in the past decade. Accompanying this unprecedented boom in plantings is a growing conviction among residents that this once largely rural county is growing too fast for its own good. Not everyone wants to see vineyards planted wherever you turn. Not everyone wants more wineries or even more people or houses. No one's sure exactly where or how to apply the brakes on "progress."
Last summer I spent a night in Rancho Cucamonga in Southern California, a short distance from where I grew up. I arrived at dusk, when the last rays of sunlight cast hazy golden and purple-brown hues over the landscape. I caught a glimpse of rows of stumpy old vines that lined the road off the interstate. A long, long time ago, this was part of California's wine country, with vineyards planted in the shadow of the magnificent San Gabriel Mountains.
The next day, I passed a series of strip malls, with their chain stores and movie theatres, and noticed that those old vineyards were for sale. No doubt they are destined to be uprooted and paved over -- perhaps soon.
Upon my return to Napa, I tasted a 1997 Zinfandel from Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma. The grapes came from a 100-year-old vineyard owned by the DeAmbrogio family, which still owns 40 acres of vines and operates a winery business in Cucamonga. The DeAmbrogios are among the last surviving winegrowers there; they still remember a Cucamonga Valley full of vineyards, with a once bright and promising future.
The threat of urban sprawl remains very real wherever agricultural land is up for grabs. One need look no further than the former winegrowing centers of Anaheim, Cucamonga or Santa Clara Valley, now home to San Jose and Silicon Valley.
The rural-urban interface always generates confrontations. Many of today's aspiring vintners are anxious to plant their vineyards and realize their dreams; they don't want environmental roadblocks in their path to success. Constraints on growth and development will make it much more difficult to plant vineyards in the future. No solution is perfect. But when you look at the historical alternatives and what has happened to California's old winegrowing districts -- or even the old orange groves -- the choices are pretty clear.
I've seen it before. The bulldozers lowered their blades, and the trees were plowed under. Once the orange groves were gone, everything else changed -- for the worse.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)
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