Today, in Southern California where Vitis vinifera was first planted more than 200 years ago, the grape pickers are literally working a moment ahead of the bulldozers. The needs of San Diego and Los Angeles County’s massive populations outweigh any amount of profits from wine grapes.
In Northern California most residents were happy to see the first large vineyards going in. After all, they were not building tract housing. The early wine grape growers bequeathed us much less urban development than Napa or the East Bay.
As wine production became more profitable our Northern California acres were marketed worldwide. The greatest change in the recent history of California wine growing is that more than 80 percent of the wine growers are not multigenerational families, but multinational corporations. These corporations need fast turnaround on their investments and may be less concerned with long- range environmental issues.
California history has always been the story of water and water is the subtext of wine growing in Northern California. Industry insiders who love the business say they are concerned about too many vineyards. The vineyard related problems here: the water table, the over pumped aquifers, the fish habitats and polluted waterways.
Kate Wilson, Russian River Keeper, a title given to volunteers who monitor the health of the river, lived for years along Mark West Creek, a 29.9 mile tributary of the Russian River and an important part of Sonoma’s watershed. Ms. Wilson participated in KRCB-TV’s nine part series entitled “Our Watershed Stories”. You can listen to Karen and many other North Bay waterway experts at http://www.ourwatershedstories.org/.
Ms. Wilson said ”There are good players and bad players…there are all kinds of [environmental] issues. Wells that go down thousands of feet are being pumped dry by the vineyards; the level of Mark West Creek has gone down to the point where it is drying up every summer.”
The United States Geological Survey and California Fish and Game classify this as a Class IV stream, flowing only during the rainy months. Until about eight years ago, Mark West Creek was a class I year-round flowing stream. “Why?” is a very complicated question to answer.
Kate Wilson: “There is a battle going on here now where this Wall Street banker decided he wanted a hobby winery so he bought property and proceeded to cut down all the trees which caused a huge landslide and 10,000 cubic yards of sediment ended up in Mark West Creek, where the salmon and steelhead were already endangered . Then there are the water issues, especially how much water they use for frost protection.”
Ms. Wilson is referring to Cornell Summit Vineyards, owned by Goldman Sachs executive Henry Cornell.
On February 27, 2009, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) received a letter from the Santa Rosa Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service). Frost protection irrigation by vineyard owners in the Russian River watershed (Cornell Summit Vineyards) had used so much water that they threatened federally protected salmonids in creeks and streams. The NOAA requested that the State Water Board take immediate action to protect fish in the Russian River watershed. The Water Board held workshops in the winter of 2009 and 2010 to assess the impact of water diversion and requested voluntary actions by the wine growers to address problems and grower issues and options related to frost events.
The wine growers responded with the following Call to Action:
Attention Sonoma County Growers
We need every grower’s help!
Use of water for frost protection is at risk, and we need information from every grower in Sonoma County. This includes growers who do not frost protect – perhaps the most important group – and who only use wind machines [giant electric fans]. New regulations have been proposed that limit the use of water for frost protection unless you can prove you are not adversely affecting stream flows. This includes water from wells that are near streams!
The issue: In 2008 and again in 2009 there were takes of endangered Coho salmon in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. The assumption is take is occurring on many streams due to vineyard frost protection. We need information on vineyard acres, acres frost protected with water and the source(s) of water used. We need this for the entire county because the Water Board wants 100% grower participation, which the proposed regulation will require.
On Dec. 29, 2011, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), superseding permits issued by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and an after-the-fact land development permit issued in 2008 by the Sonoma County PRMD, Permit and Resource Management Department, approved Frost Regulations, Title 23 section 862, requiring that “all water use for frost protection from the Russian River watershed between March 15 and May 15 must be done in accordance with a SWRCB approved Water Demand Management Program” (WDMP).
The regulation was meant to assist frost protection water users … to avoid stranding of salmonids during frost events. Landowners were required to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Game (CF&G) on developing the stream monitoring and risk assessment portions of the plan.
Almost immediately a suit was filed in Mendocino Superior Court to stop the regulations. The judge granted a stay of the enforcement of the regulation until the case could come to trial.
The Department of Fish and Game sent out a letter to landowners enjoining them to uphold the conditions of the regulation. This was followed by threats to file actions on the grounds that CF&G had no right to demand compliance of regulation that had been granted a stay.
In September of 2012 a group of local landowners won their lawsuit against the California State Water Resources Control Board’s frost protection regulations. Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman declared the regulations constitutionally void.
Still, this is a Federal issue. At this time the National Marine Fisheries Service is forcing the SWRCB to follow the law.
I learned this from Jim Doerkson. Jim is a retired hydrologist who, with his wife Betty, has been involved in Russian River and Sonoma County watershed issues for many years. Cornell Summit Farm is located about two miles above where they live on Mark West Creek.
Jim believes that while there are other contributing factors, “The wine grape industry is causing serious damage to our wonderful Sonoma County environment. The deep straws (wells) especially those in and on top of the hills where very little water exists and dewatering our creeks is causing a drastic decline of our native steelhead and salmon.”
In September 2010 the Doerksons with other members of the Friends of Mark West Watershed filed a complaint against Cornell Farms with the State Water Resource Board. At the end of this article I have included the website for the complaint and also for the disappointing response from the SWRCB.
In Jim’s opinion, “Grant Davis, General Manager of The Sonoma County Water Commission, is doing an excellent job but there is conflict with his bosses, the Board of Supervisors, who use this agency for their own purposes.”
Jim gives as an example the reluctance of the Permit and Resource Management Department to consider the General Plan of the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System as anything more than just a guide. According to Mr. Doerkson there is a prevailing conviction among some of our county agencies that the California Environmental Quality Act should be abolished.
In conclusion Jim told me, "I see the water vanishing every year, and in short order the salmon and steelhead will be gone," he says. "Apparently, our board of supervisors has decided that the fish will have to go, that the fish will have to be sacrificed. The present Board of Supervisors is continuing behind the scenes to give the wine industry great preference including exempting them from the rules. e.g., we have a law requiring proof of water in water scarce areas, [PRMD] but vineyards/wineries are being exempted although they use massive amounts of water, while homeowners digging wells have to spend real money and time to prove they have water. This example is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Pete Parkinson, Director of the Sonoma County Permit & Resource Management Dept. (see Part 2) responded to Mr. Doerkson:
“…It is not correct to say that vineyards and wineries are exempted from laws requiring proof of water in water scarce areas. We have two types of requirements in water scarce areas. First, any discretionary permit (such as a use permit for a winery) in a water scarce area is required to do a hydrogeologic report to demonstrate that sufficient water is available and to determine whether the project will adversely impact other groundwater users or overdraft the available groundwater. Second, construction of a new home in a water-scarce area requires a well-pump test to ensure that enough water is available to provide for domestic use in the new home. This test only evaluates water supply for the new home; the test is not intended to evaluate the groundwater impact of the new use. The County does not have any requirement for new agricultural wells to show proof of water.”
To Mr. Doerkson’s statement that …” there is a prevailing conviction among some of our county agencies that the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System (CEQA) should be abolished....” Mr. Parkinson responded, “Mr. Doerkson’s assertion … is absolutely false. I have never heard anyone associated with the County of Sonoma voice that opinion, or anything remotely close. Not only is CEQA the law here in California, but as an environmental and planning professional, I can tell you that CEQA plays a vital role in ensuring that the environmental impacts of projects are identified and mitigated or avoided to the greatest extent possible. While CEQA can be improved and streamlined, Sonoma County strongly supports retaining the environmental protection and public disclosure principles embodied in CEQA.”
On December 4th, 2012 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved Henry Cornell’s final proposal for his winery. It was approved on a smaller scale than the original plan presented eight years ago.
An environmental review ruled “the project would have no significant environmental impacts after incorporating more than 80 measures to safeguard wildlife and water, and other resources.”
The supervisors agreed with Mr. Cornell’s attorney, John Holdredge, that “the project had gone above and beyond what would have been required of many other uses for the property.”
“Our overriding goal has been to set the standard for environmentally sensitive wineries in that area. I think we've done that,” Holdredge said.
The Board of Supervisors denied an appeal by the project’s opponents.
“Floods, clear-cutting, lumber, erosion, and diversion [of streams and rivers] are all in competition with wine grape growers for the worst things that can happen to our rivers and their tributaries,” says David Keller, the Bay Area Director of the Friends of Eel River (FOER). He was honored as Sonoma County Environmentalist of the Year in 2009 in part for his long time public advocacy for North Coast water supply and watershed issues. Mr. Keller says as an environmentalist, he thinks in 150-year time spans. Not something we Californians are used to.
Mr. Keller reiterated what Jim Doerkson told me that, “ Uncontrolled pumping from the Russian River for frost protection has drained the river without notice, stranding and killing the salmon and steelhead. This in turn causes the Sonoma County Water Agency to release the already over-appropriated water from Lake Mendocino just to maintain the minimum required stream flows.”
Mr. Keller believes the State Water Resources Control Board has a more realistic assessment of our actual current and future water needs than SCWA.
In October 2011 Governor Brown signed measure AB 964. A collaboration between the Wine Institute and Trout Unlimited, wineries and growers, and State Water Resources Control Board, this measure provides an expedited way for small grape growers (twenty acres and under) to develop off-stream storage ponds to protect their crops from frost damage.
The northern and coastal vineyards are susceptible to frost damage in the early spring, during the vine cycle know as “bud break”. The vines are coming out of winter dormancy and setting their first leaves.
To avoid draining rivers and streams, the most environmentally friendly method of frost protection is to use water that has been stored during the high flow winter months.
The state’s water rights approval process can be cumbersome, expensive and bureaucratic; this measure will make it easier for small vineyards to obtain authorization to protect their crops.
Even though the acreage planted in wine grapes is down by about 3,000 acres since the peak in 2002, there is a change in the Sonoma County landscape. The valley floors have been planted and growers are looking up to expand.
Peter Ashcroft, a former Chair of the Redwood Chapter Sierra Club Conservation Committee looked up in 2007 and was moved to produce a scary little film. Here is a link. It is just over 4 minutes in length and is narrated by Mr. Ashcroft. This is a reasoned introduction to what it really means to denude a hillside and it includes a call to action.
Sonoma County permits the development of hillside vineyards under an ordinance passed in 2000, the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance or VESCO. It is modeled on similar regulations adopted in Napa County in 1991 which have worked well there.
VESCO regulates the slope degree of the hillside, but contains no restrictions on tree removal. Sonoma County’s tree ordinance exempts agriculture.
“Not including guidelines for tree removal in VESCO was an oversight…” stated Tony Linegar. Mr. Linegar was appointed Agricultural Commissioner to Sonoma County in November 2011. “It’s not just the tree roots, but the canopy as well, that slows rain before it hits the ground.”
One of his first assignments from the Board of Supervisors was to make recommendations to bring VESCO up to date. The Ag Commissioner’s office was using an outdated mid-western soil test that had nothing to do with our soils.
Faced with a wave of proposed vineyard projects calling for clear cutting Sonoma County hillsides, Mr. Linegar, after only three weeks as Commissioner, proposed a moratorium on vineyard projects that would remove trees from ridge tops or slopes greater than 15 percent, as opposed to the 50 percent allowed in VESCO. “We’re not talking about small acreages. Rather than let these projects go forward and cause a problem with sedimentation, we’d rather be proactive.”
Commissioner Linegar’s bottom line: “No matter what, you cannot make erosion worse.”
Commissioner Linegar was especially concerned about projects proposed in western and northern Sonoma County that proposed the removal of oak, madrone and bay trees. These are three of the trees indigenous to California.
The Board passed the “urgency measure” which went into effect immediately with an expiration date of May 31st, 2012.
The geotechnical consulting firm of LACO Associates conducted the study and recommended the revisions. The Board of Supervisors voted to adopt them on May 15th of 2012.
Nick Frey, recently retired president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, was quoted in the Press Democrat as saying, “…the number of new applications prompting the moratorium represent a tiny fraction of the county’s forestlands. There is not this insatiable demand for grapes for high-priced bottles of wine that’s going to lead to lots of new acres.”
Bo Simons, librarian at the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg, CA. told me,” Green fear goes through cycles and quality farmers want to grow what sells.”
When I asked David Keller what he thought would finally determine the outcome of Northern California agricultural practices he replied, “ the price of grapes.”
“Wines and Vines” magazine reported in November of 2012 that Richard Wollack, well known vineyard and winery investor, has set up a fund to raise one hundred million dollars to “select and manage high-end vineyard properties with Chinese investors.” Partnering with the Hina Group of Beijing, investors intend to “target planted vineyard property in Napa and Sonoma Counties.”
One of the several proposals that triggered the moratorium on vineyard projects requiring tree removal was Premier Pacific Vineyards’ Preservation Ranch. The proposal was to convert 1,800 of its 20,000 redwood forested acres to vineyards. Mr. Wollack was founder and former principal manager of Premier Pacific Vineyards.
Their proposal was so ambitious and touched on enough environmental issues that it unintentionally helped to trigger the forest saving revisions to VESCO.
Preservation Ranch is on the Gualala River Watershed near the Sonoma-Mendocino border. This plan became one of the hottest and most deeply political land-use fights in Northern California and the controversy stirred up interest on a national level. (You have seen the Sierra Club reaction in “More Than a Clearcut”)
Friends of the Gualala River, a local non-profit with members primarily based in Annapolis and Gualala, collected nearly 100,000 signatures on a petition opposing Preservation Ranch.
This has a happy ending.
Virginia based Conservation Fund, partnering with the California Coastal Conservancy, Sonoma County's Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, and the Sonoma Land Trust have negotiated a 24.5 million dollar purchase of the 20,000 acres of Preservation Ranch, knocking the irony out of the property’s name. It is the largest conservation purchase in Sonoma County history.
The property spans a vast and rugged landscape of second- and third-growth redwood and Douglas fir, oak woodlands, salmon and steelhead streams.
Almost a year has passed since I started this series of reports. When I drive by vineyards now I know the vines are beginning to flower and set fruit, the next stage after bud break. I have driven a lot of beautiful Northern California country miles, met people from every aspect of the wine making industry, made friends, called AAA, talked to a few sheep, and irritated some people. (Sorry I kept your books so long, Bo) I have amassed nearly enough research to fill a book.
I can say only that there are no clear lines leading to the good guys or the bad guys. There are very clear environmental issues. The problems are there to be seen. The lines start to swerve when the causes and solutions are sought. It is much more political than I had ever imagined, from our local agencies and policies to state agencies, through to the State Legislature, to the Governor’s office, even to Calpers, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. There are the many private organizations and associations that have real economic and political influence.
The Commission of Sonoma County Wine Growers is a case in point.
Early on, they were the Sonoma County Grape Growers and membership was by invitation. The organization has evolved into the Commission of Sonoma County Wine Growers and membership is required if you grow wine grapes in Sonoma County. Every ton of grapes crushed in Sonoma County earns money for this self-made commission.
We, as residents of the North Bay and as consumers, can be as involved as possible in our local government, making sure it is there to protect us by protecting our environment. Working collaboratively seems to get the fastest results with the most benefits for all involved. We can shop the California wine aisles with discretion, voting with our dollars for environmentally responsible wineries.
Wine tasting tours are a part of living in Northern California, especially when hosting guests. It’s even more fun when you ask to talk to the winemakers, get their family history and ask what their philosophy toward the land is. A little curiosity is often rewarded by a spontaneous tour of the winery. Which is exactly how I ended up touring Buena Vista wineries with owner Jean-Charles Boisset.
He presented me with an almanac and biodynamic calendar he had written. This quote is on the inside of the back cover: “We don’t impose our rhythm on Nature. The key is to listen, respect and live with Her.”
I would like to propose a toast to a long lasting, environmentally sound future for our Northern California wine growers.
A final thank you to Bo Simons at the Healdsburg Wine Library, Janus Matthes at CAFF and Anna Miranda at Boisset Family Estates.
For more information, please visit these websites:
The Sierra Club owns the copyright to “Worse Than a Clear Cut” and freely grants permission for anyone to use the video.Posted by PIN Developers on 07/15/13
In Part I of “Wine Growing In Northern California” I attempted to distill two hundred years of California viticultural history and introduce a few of the earliest and most influential of the first winemaking families in Northern California.
In Part 2 I would like to present specific cases of ‘then and now and look into the current status of small family wineries.
Let me start with a timeline of Buena Vista, the oldest extant winery in Sonoma:
In 1857, America, east of the Mississippi, was settled and prosperous.
The nation was embroiled in pro- and anti-slavery debates in its churches and town halls, but John Browns raid on Harpers Ferry was still two years away and the Civil War would have been only a premonition.
West of the Mississippi, buffalo herds numbered in the millions on the high plains from Wyoming to Texas where settlers were, with an awful reliability, burned out by Comanche, Kiowa, Pawnee, Tonkawa, Osage….
In 1857 in Northern California, in a distinctly less dangerous environment, Agoston Haraszthy purchased the first 330 acres of his Buena Vista Farm and began to plant 165 varieties of wine grapes. Un-harassed by weather or displaced natives, these grapes quickly became nearly half a million vines and his original 330 acres grew to three thousand acres of pasture, 355 acres of grain, three year-round creeks, and dozens of vernal springs. (Please refer to Agoston Harasthy in Part I)
Agoston had two sons, Attila and Arpad. They both married into the Vallejo family and remained in Sonoma County. Arpad learned champagne making in France, then returned to make the first successful champagne style wine in California.
A wine glut in the 1850s flattened sales until the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 and wine could be exported cheaply to the East Coast. Attila, Agostons other son, was the first in the Sonoma Valley to recognize the destructive potential of Phylloxera, but this was not enough to save their vineyards. The Buena Vista Farm produced no dividends and in 1866, Agoston was voted out by the Society he had founded. For two years he continued to lobby in Washington for the California wine industry. He attempted to set up a brandy distillery in Sonoma. When the distillery boiler exploded and the last of his investments failed, Agoston made his fatal decision to relocate in Nicaragua.
For an introduction to Agoston Haraszthy see Wine Growing In Northern California Part I.
The Buena Vista Vinicultural Society was disbanded in 1876 and the farm liquidated. The stone winery suffered from storm and earthquake damage, eventually becoming a ruin. The grand villa built by Agoston sat empty, overlooking the abandoned vineyards.
In 1943 Frank Bartholomew, of United Press International, bought Buena Vista at auction, sight unseen. It was only later when he and his wife Antonia discovered the champagne caves and the wine pressing room that they realized they had purchased the oldest winery in Sonoma County. While he covered the war in the Pacific, Frank left Antonia to restore the winery and the vineyards. When he returned he brought accomplished White Russian winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, who introduced another first: aging in small French oak wine barrels. The staves of these barrels were much more flexible and resilient than redwood, and they imparted a neutral taste, while being much higher in tannins. By 1949 Buena Vista Winery was again producing world-class wines.
Today, the winery still sits on its original property. Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates purchased it in 2011. He first visited Buena Vista when he was eleven years old with his sister and grandparents on vacation from France. He never forgot the impression it made on him and after several attempts he was finally able to purchase it 31 years later.
Jean-Charles grew up in a family of wine makers in the historic region of Côte de Nuits. Under his guidance Boisset Family Estates has become the third largest wine and spirits company in France.
Jean-Charles sounds like he is channeling Agoston when he talks about his commitment to innovation and quality. His theory of responsible viniculture is a company-changing design to ensure premium quality and sustainable farming practices. Jean-Charles Boisset is talking about biodynamics.
Biodynamic farming is a holistic approach based on the research of Austrian theosophist-philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Its elements are the self-nourishing inter-dependency of the soil, the plants, the water, and the animals. Biodynamic agriculture excludes the use of chemicals and is a more reliable certification than “organic”.
An easier way to grasp the essence of biodynamics is that it is simply the way our great-grandfathers farmed. It is how Agoston and all his neighbors in all the valleys and on all the hillsides in all the vineyards in the whole of California and the rest of the world farmed wine grapes in the 19th century and before.
The Boisset family is one in a growing company of California vintners leading the way back to these pre-modern methods. The family owns the Buena Vista and DeLoach wineries in Sonoma, and Raymond Vineyards in Napa, which hosts a two-acre living classroom of biodynamic farming.
By not losing sight of the past Jean-Charles feels he is guaranteeing a future for the Buena Vista and for Sonoma County viticulture. The concept of winemakers as stewards of the land is an important one to Jean-Charles, who hopes to secure his vineyards for the next generation and the next and the next, thinking in terms of 150 years and then some.
When I asked him if he was pessimistic about the future of wine making in Sonoma County he said, “This is only the beginning, we [American Wine makers] really havent even started. There is no reason to be pessimistic.”
I asked Jean-Charles for his opinion of how Northern California compared to France in terms of the perception of monoculture and sustainability. “I think there is no significant difference because of the concerns of sustainability. In France we believe in poly-culture. Sonoma is a poly-culture. Sonoma is too big with too many [for wine grapes] unplantable acres. We have both survived a series of wine grape gluts in the last thirty years. Napa is like Burgundy, small, a tiny valley.”
Monsieur Boisset reminded me that Sonoma was recognized by Europe as producing world-class wines in the 1870s, over 100 years before the 1976 Judgment of Paris.
Closed to the public for decades, the original hand-dug caves along with the hillside surrounding the original winery buildings are currently being restored. You can touch the scored surface made by the pick axes of the Chinese workmen Haraszthy hired away from the railroads.
The original wine press house, with its access to the champagne cellar, is also being restored and is open to the public. The press house is the tasting room and visitors center.
Walking me out after a hearty fortification of wine and champagne, Jean-Charles points proudly to the top of the wine press house and tells me,
“This was the first gravity flow building used on a winery in Northern California.”
He is channeling that innovative Agoston Haraszthy again.
I want to go back for a moment to a comparison between Northern California and Europe. France, a country we may think of as covered in grape vines, has only about 4% of its agricultural land planted in vineyards. The acreage devoted
to wine grapes in Europe has been on the decrease since 1960. France has lost about 25% of its ag land to urbanization. Italys government has been subsidizing grape growers for years, paying farmers to rip out vineyards in an effort to support wine prices. Unlike here in California the biggest increase in European agricultural production is not wine grapes but oilseed rape, used for bio-diesel fuel production.
“There are about 59,000 acres of premium wine grapes in Sonoma County, down about 3,000 acres from the peak of a decade ago”, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine grape Commission.
“There's not this insatiable demand for grapes for high-priced bottles of wines that's going to lead to lots of new acres,” Frey said.
California organic farm acreage, which includes organic wine grapes, has nearly doubled over the last six years, surpassing the demand for new traditional vineyard acreage.
Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) has been an advocate for sustainable agriculture for over 30 years. The organization assists in transitioning farmers to biological (organic) agriculture, connects school food programs to local farmers, assists in the distribution of locally grown produce, and advocates for the rights of the family farmer.
Janus Matthes has been an active volunteer at CAFF for more than a decade. Her primary concern is promoting organic and dry farming (not irrigated) methods for vineyards and encouraging consumers to support those vineyards.
Starting in about 1971, drip irrigation began to be used more and more in Northern California to increase yields, a process modeled after Israels wine industry. Grapes are purchased by the ton. Irrigated grapes, a little like watered feedlot cattle, weigh more.
Ms. Matthes explained that until the early 1970s, practically all wine grapes planted in the North Coast were dry farmed. A tradition brought from Spain and Italy, grapes had been dry farmed here since the 1850s.
Frogs Leap winery in Napa is a 200- acre third- generation family owned organic vineyard. Frank Leeds has been farming the family ranch since 1984, over the various terroirs of Napa; the valley, the river, and up on the benches, a naturally occurring terrace between two hills. It has been dry farmed since his grandfather's time.
In their practice, Frank has found that dry farming does not compromise yields, the health of the vineyards, the longevity of the vines, or the quality of the wine. (In France watering vineyards is actually illegal.) Dry farmers believe it is not possible to make a great wine from irrigated land. The California wines that won the Paris competition were all dry farmed.
Frogs Leap uses overhead frost control on some of their vineyards. Frost control twice a year is a normal year; four times is a bad winter. Frank says, “If you cant control for the frost you are done for the year. You put on about one-tenth of an inch of water for two to four hours. Even in a bad year, very little water per acre is used for frost control. This is a savings of at least 16,000 gallons per acre compared to vineyards that irrigate.”
Only about 1,000 acres out of the over 40,000 acres of wine grapes growing in Napa are dry farmed. Seventeen years is the average life of a conventional vineyard in Napa. They die off prematurely of irrigation related disease, oat root fungus and the dreaded phylloxera. There are dry farmed vineyards in Sonoma and Napa that are 75 years old and, as we have seen, much older.
Janus suggests that there are a great many vineyards on the North Coast currently using irrigation that may not need to. She works on a yearly updated list of organic and biodynamic vineyards for the Sonoma County Water Coalition.
“I'm a purist and only put totally organic or biodynamic wineries on the list as so many wineries buy conventionally produced grapes for blending.” This list is available on her website at: www.californiarealwine.com
Ms. Matthes believes that the corporate wineries will not pay attention to anything but their bottom line so it is up to consumers to be informed and vote with their wallets. She requested that if I report anything from our conversation
it be this: “We need to level the playing field in the wine industry so smaller grape growers who are trying to do the right thing get encouragement and support.”
Dry Creek Vineyard is a solid example of a small, family owned winery that uses only dry farmed grapes. It also qualifies as a “first”. Founded in 1972 by David S. Stare, Dry Creek was the first new winery in the Dry Creek Valley after Prohibition. The valley was planted in prunes, not grapes, and Kim Stare, daughter of the founder and second-generation co-owner, remembers that “the locals thought we were crazy.”
Dry Creek Vineyard was the first to produce a Fumé Blanc in this area, the first to coin the term Old Vines for Zinfandel, the first to advocate for the art
of Bordeaux blending and subsequently to use the term Meritage on a wine label. They were the first to develop the Heritage Clone propagation technique: grafting old vine Zinfandel budwood onto new rootstock which decreases the need for water and the potential for devastating disease. Most pertinent, they were the first to develop a code of ethics for sustainable farming for the California Wine Institute.
Dry Creek Vineyard was an early contributor to the Dry Creek Restoration Project. For the past three years, Don Wallace, second-generation co-owner with his sister, Kim, has worked with the Sonoma County Water Agency as well as other environmental groups and several neighboring landowners.
This decade long project is large in both its scope and intention. The project aims to improve the habitat of the endangered Coho salmon and steelhead that call the Dry Creek their home.
“It wasnt always like this,” says Don. “This creek used to run dry – hence its name.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Warm Springs Dam, or Lake Sonoma as most people call it, was constructed. Its operation began in 1984 to provide flood control in the winter and to store water year-round for municipal and domestic uses. The dam has affected Dry Creek in many ways, but no other species have been as adversely affected as the Coho and the steelhead.
The creek no longer runs “dry”. Flow rates vary during winter and summer months with lower rates in the winter and swifter rates during summer, the opposite situation as a vernal creek. The result is a stressful environment for the young Coho and steelhead when they are at their most vulnerable. “Riffle” habitats, important fish production areas, are now rare on the creek.
Don Wallace is concerned with his legacy. “Im going to leave this land to my children. I want them to be proud of what weve done to protect our environment. Everything we do at the winery and in our business practices is an effort to lead sustainable lives. Its no different at home. Were protecting this area for future generations.”
David Manning, Principal Environmental Specialist at the Sonoma County Water Agency, is grateful for the Wallaces and their neighbors commitment and co-operation. These volunteers are working along with the California Fish and Game Commission, the National Marine Fishery Service and the Army Corp of Engineers, on a mandate from the Federal Government to reduce the speed
of the water in Dry Creek. The Sonoma County Water Agency and Mr. Mannings team are overseeing the project.
This is the only project of this scale on the Russian River Bed. The first mile of work is centered around Lambert Bridge, right in the middle of the Dry Creek Valley. The work is not actually a restoration but a project to “enhance”
six of the fourteen miles of Dry Creek. This fourteen miles is an aqueduct that carries water from Sonoma Lake to the Russian River. The water is then diverted into underground storage at Forestville near Wohler Bridge. The water released from the lake is cold and the temperature is right for young Coho, but the dam caused changes in the water speed.
The project involves excavating portions of the streambed that are adjacent to the main flow of the creek, in addition to the main creek, working at the creek bed level, avoiding the vineyards.
“We are placing 30- foot- long logs with their root mass attached in the stream in a very deliberate way. They are carefully engineered to last a long time and to provide habitat for the vulnerable young Coho and steelhead salmon. We will be replanting trees in areas where they have been removed,” Mr. Manning explains.
These habitat features are known by various evocative names: “Back Waters”, “Alcoves”, and “Side Channels”.
The Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, (PRMD), as the name suggests, issues all the land use permits for the county. Their agricultural land use policy has three categories:
1. Land- intensive agriculture
2. Land- extensive agriculture
3. Diverse- agriculture
Each of these categories permits the full range of agricultural uses, but differ primarily in allowable lot or parcel sizes. Land- intensive is the designation for areas where the soil and water conditions make farming highly productive. New parcels must be a minimum of 20 acres.
Land- extensive is the category used for less productive land that needs larger acreage to make continued agricultural use profitable. Residential densities in this category are higher than in land intensive.
Diverse- agriculture is for areas where small acreage intensive and part-time farming predominate. This designation allows for higher building density and is a kind of transition between urban and rural areas. All of these categories use existing or historic land use and the sub-county viticultural appellation as designation criteria. All require that soil and water available on the land be sufficient for the designated purpose.
Pete Parkinson is Department Head at the PRMD. I asked him in a telephone interview what the biggest change has been in land use permit requests over the last three or so years. His answer:
“There has been a decline in the number of permits requested. Since the recession, capital that is necessary for land development is harder to come by. But having said that, Sonoma and Napa Counties are among the best places in all the world to grow premium wines, so its not as hard hit as say, housing.”
Mr. Parkinson believes that the most important responsibility of the agency is its guiding constitution for land use policies that sets the goal of raising to the highest level the economic health of the county, particularly the health of our agricultural centers.
“A balance,” he says,” comes in when we are looking at a new winery. We make sure that what is being proposed fits on the land and in the community in which it is being proposed. The most important thing is flexibility and adaptability, to consider the needs of the property owner and the neighbors and try to come up with a win-win.
“Every project is different; we cannot generalize. We definitely look at water issues when we look at applications for wineries. From a regulatory standpoint there is a vast difference between someone planting grapes and
someone who is building a winery. A vineyard proposal does not come to us; it goes to the agricultural commissioner. Neither the state nor the county has rules that regulate water withdrawal. [Emphasis mine]
“A new winery is a conditional use, so the public is notified, there is a hearing, and we have the authority to look in greater depth at water use. If they are building a winery we absolutely look at water use. Water usage for grape growers is not part of what we do at PRMD.”
Mr. Parkinson concluded with the assurance that: “We work for the county of Sonoma, the Board of Supervisors and the people. This encompasses a very broad responsibility. We do our best to make sure we have uncovered the issues affecting the environment and neighborhood compatibility.”
This brings us to part three, the final segment. We look further into water and land use issues, inside and outside of our county offices.
Thank yous to Pete Parkinson and Lisa Posternak at Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management. Thanks very much to: Kim Stare Wallace, President, Dry Creek Vineyard and to Bill Smart, Director of Communications at Dry Creek Vineyard. Thank you also to David Manning Principal Environmental Specialist, Sonoma County Water Agency. For more on the work they are doing visit the SCWA website and select Projects from the main menu. Thank you to Jean Charles Boisset of Buena Vista Winery and his very able Communications Specialist, Anna Miranda. Buena Vista is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a California Historical Landmark. For more on the Buena Vista Winery go to their website. To learn more about the Community Alliance With Family Farmers go to caff.org. Thank you to Janus Matthes for her generous sharing of information and contacts. Find her and her work at californiarealwine.com. See a discussion of Frogs Leap vineyard practices at frogsleap.com.Posted by PIN Developers on 07/11/13