In what may be the final chapter of the ongoing legal battle between Artesa Vineyards and Winery and several environmental organizations over the proposed conversion of a 324-acre tract in Sonoma to Pinot Noir vineyards, Artesa announced this past Tuesday that the property is being put up for sale for $1.5 million.
Bought in 1997 at a cost of $1.7 million, the Sonoma Coast property became a national story when environmental groups cried foul at the idea of uprooting redwood trees on part of the estate for more vineyards. Executives at Artesa, owned by Spanish firm Grupo Codorníu, argued 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 argued that it has returned to nature in recent years and should be left alone.
On Dec. 6, County Judge Elliot Daum ruled that “all possible alternatives to the removal of the redwood trees for use as a vineyard had not been explored.” This effectively halted any development, though most legal analysts saw this as a temporary roadblock. But company executives may have decided the land was not worth the added expense and PR battles.
Artesa's representatives insisted, however, that the sale has nothing to do with the ruling. “This action is not a result of the false and misleading opposition to the development of our property there, but instead a change in market focus,” Sam Singer, spokesman for the company, told Wine Spectator. “We believe in this property, but it no longer fits in the larger plans of the overall company. We are devoting our resources and focusing on Napa Valley.”
Artesa's president also said company strategy played more of a role than legal battles. “We’ve been working since 2010 to realign our vineyards with our brand strategy,” said Arthur O’Connor. He pointed out that the company has sold its Ridgeland vineyard in Alexander Valley. “The sale of the [Sonoma Coast] property helps us complete that process.”
Opponents of the development were quick to claim victory. “Sierra Club welcomes Artesa's decision to put the property up for sale, which we see as an affirmation of our longtime contention that the site is inappropriate for vineyard development," said Victoria Brandon, chair of the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter. "Ideally, the new owner will want to maintain it for habitat, sustainable forestry and watershed protection, which we think is the highest and best use of coastal forestland throughout northern California.”
There are no guarantees that the next owner will not pick up were Artesa left off. But foundations have bought California land and set it aside for conservation when environmental groups challenged development in court. Artesa could find it difficult to woo potential vineyard developers after the protracted legal battle.