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California Investor Resurrects Controversial Plan for Ridge-Top Vineyards

William Hill's scaled-down plan for Sonoma still raises environmental concerns

Lynn Alley
Posted: April 8, 2005

William Hill, managing partner of Premier Pacific Vineyards, is once again drawing fire from environmentalists for a development plan that would establish an estimated 1,900 acres of ridge-top vineyards in Sonoma County's Gualala River watershed, which the Environmental Protection Agency has designated as impaired.

In 2003, Hill, a Napa Valley-based vintner and vineyard developer, presented a highly controversial plan to develop the largest single vineyard project in the North Coast wine region's history. Premier Pacific Vineyards teamed up with a timber company to purchase 80,000 acres in a remote, mountainous area of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Hill hoped to convert 5,000 acres of prime ridge-top land--a portion of which was located in the Gualala River watershed--from forest to premium Pinot Noir vineyards.

Opposition from environmentalists, community members, and even local grapegrowers--who denied the need for more coastal vineyards in the face of an industry-wide grape glut--forced Hill to abandon the project in late 2003.

Recently, however, Hill has revamped the plan, calling it Preservation Ranch and scaling it down to an estimated 1,900 acres of ridge-top vineyards that would be converted from timberland. The plan also calls for a minimum of 1,900 acres of redwood forest to be preserved as a conservation easement, and 14,500 acres to be planted to Douglas fir and redwood for eventual selective harvesting.

"This property had really been hammered [by timber companies]," Hill said. "Unfortunately, this is representative of much of the forest property in Northern California. We've come in with hydrologists and soil scientists, zoologists, biologists and foresters, and they've been studying this land on our nickel for the past year."

Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grapegrowers Association, said it looks as if Hill is "trying to do some things that would offset the vineyard development with long-term preservation."

But objections from environmentalists who have witnessed the destruction of coastal oaks and redwoods for vineyards and the resulting impairment of the Gualala River watershed are still very much in the fore.

"I love my Pinot Noir just as much as anybody else, and we're not against viticulture, but we are against destroying a healthy forest and a degraded watershed to put in another vineyard," said Ursula Jones, president of Friends of the Gualala River.

"As far as we're concerned, vineyard conversion is worse than clear-cutting because clear-cut land eventually reforests itself or is reforested by the timber company," Jones said. "If you put in a vineyard, you have to sterilize the soil so that weeds don't come up. You're using pesticides and herbicides to protect your crop, and the water use for the first few years to establish your crop is quite significant."

Hill says he plans to consult with community members and organizations in order to enlist support for his project. But as Chris Poehlmann, a spokesperson for the Mendocino-based Coastal Forest Alliance, said, "There's just enough information being supplied to make him look good, but the bottom line is, he's about to give the wine industry the biggest black eye it's ever had."

Local environmentalists are not the only hurdle facing Hill. Before Hill can begin work on the vineyards, he'll need to obtain timber conversion permits from the California Department of Forestry, seek approval from the State Regional Water Quality Control Board and file an environmental impact report.

"We're not even at the stage of applying for permits yet," Hill said. "We've still got a lot of studying to do." Hill said it may be a year before his team can begin work on the vineyards.

Hill's project, or any project of its magnitude, is fraught with potential problems, said Glenn McGourty, a University of California, Davis, extension agent who specializes in viticulture in Mendocino and Lake counties. "The infrastructure isn't there to support the workers needed," McGourty said. "There is no housing for them and road access into the region is poor. The terrain where these vineyards are planned is very prone to erosion."

McGourty believes that the Regional Water Quality Control Board is not likely to support any project that could lead to an increase in erosion, a diversion of water or an introduction of pesticides into an already impaired watershed. "These are all challenges that the project will have to address … or the community will hold their feet to the fires," he said.

Some local growers aren't looking forward to more competition from vineyards that are creating animosity in the community. Tim Buckner, who farms grapes in Mendocino County, about 30 miles north of Hill's Preservation Ranch property, said, "I don't think we really need another 2,000 acres of coastal grapes in an industry that is still feeling the effects of coastal planting."

Buckner also expressed his concern, as did several other locals, that Hill's plans may "turn into multimillion-dollar 'ranchettes' when the grapes don't pay back fast enough to satisfy his investors."

But Hill views it differently. "If this thing works out like I expect, I'll feel this is the best thing I've done in my whole career," he said. "There are forests up and down the state that have suffered similar abuse and we hope to serve as a model."

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