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Source: California Wild, The Magazine of the

Spring 2005

Nature in a Bottle
by Gordy Slack

"It is alive, growing, gaining complexity as it ages," says Maya, the sympathetic waitress in Sideways, Alexander Payne's oenophiliac comedy. She's explaining why she

Redwood Forest
Courtesy of National Park Service

adores good wine and, in particular, why she loves the obsession-inducing, cult-status varietal known as pinot noir. In it, Maya says, she can sense the place where the grapes grew, the rain drenching the fruit, the sun warming it, the loamy and fragrant soil, the cool coastal fog rolling in over steep hills at night: in short, the entire terroir, as it is known in the wine world. The notion of terroir-that wine made from the grapes of an extraordinary place would be fragrant and delicious in ways that correspond somehow to the qualities of that place-is a seductive one. Unless you're a hunter or a mushroom collector, it can be difficult to find intimate yet wholesome ways to actively engage with beautiful earthy places in this leave-only-footprints era. That's especially true if you'd rather not go outside. But sipping the essence of a place, drinking it right into your body, is pretty intimate. And, on the surface, pretty wholesome.

Beneath the skin, however-leaving aside the intriguing scientific question of whether a place can actually be tasted in a wine-the problem with cult varietals is that an increasing number of grape growers are mutilating the terrain in order to bottle terroir.

In pursuit of perfect grapes-or at least the most salable ones-and bargain real estate, specialty growers are heading into more remote and wild areas. There they are damaging or out-and-out destroying the very habitats whose qualities they so obsessively seek.

For example, steep and higher elevation land had previously been considered out of bounds for winegrowers, because such land tends to be remote, relatively ecologically intact, and vulnerable to erosion. Yet a study by University of California, Berkeley conservation biologist Adina Merenlender shows that in Sonoma County alone, a quarter of the vineyards developed since 1990 were put on slopes steeper than ten degrees, and about 40 percent were put in above 100 meters in elevation. This is a steep increase from the previous decade, when less than six percent of the vineyards established were on such hilly ground, and only about 18 percent were above 100 meters.

New technologies, new tastes, and new economic pressures have made uplands increasingly attractive to grape growers. And unlike lowland areas, which had often been cleared decades before for other, less glamorous kinds of agriculture, the new vineyards are often built on wildlands: oak woodlands, redwood forest, riparian habitat, and chaparral.

Their conversion to a grape monoculture brings with it a cluster of environmental problems, says Merenlender, including increased soil erosion, habitat fragmentation, native species destruction, wildlife migration blockage, the drawing down of water resources to hydrate vines, and, of course, habitat loss.

Skagg's Spring Road is narrow, treacherous in places, and absolutely glorious. The road passes through oak woodlands and chaparral heading west from Healdsburg, in northern Sonoma County, and into the Coastal Range.

The day I drove it in late January, some of the steep wooded valleys were filled with fog, and giant oaks seemed to float, ghostlike, above the road. It is a region of intensely delineated microclimates, however, and the verdant grassland of a neighboring fogless valley was vivid. Passing westward from the Russian River watershed into the Gualala River's, the oak woodland and chaparral gives way to Douglas fir and redwood.

This is mountain lion country, wild, craggy, and pristine looking. But it is a landscape hanging very much in the balance, says local resident and botanist Peter Baye, who lives seven miles from the coast in Annapolis. The region, he says, is "teetering between forest and river recovery, and rapid, massive agricultural conversion." It's been logged intensively twice, first in the late 1800s, when Douglas fir and redwood were sent down the coast to build San Francisco, and again after World War II, when new logging technologies enabled the cutting of big trees on steep slopes.

But in the past half century, much of the forest has grown back. And the main waterway in the region, the free-flowing Gualala River where Jack London preferred to cast his line, has made broad strides toward recovery from the sedimentation, increased temperatures, and loss of fish populations due to logging.

So when renowned winemaker Kendall-Jackson bought acreage up here five years ago and described this part of northern Sonoma County as an excellent district for pinot noir, wildland restoration activists like Baye and Chris Poehlman saw it as the kiss of death. "These guys can be absolute fanatics, willing to do anything to get the perfect grape, as if it's the only thing that matters," says Poehlman, who moved up here from Berkeley a decade ago. Poehlman is on the steering committee of the Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR), which is trying to get the California Department of Forestry to take the environmental impacts posed by vineyard conversions seriously. He likes good wine, even pinot, but he thinks some things matter even more. One of them is the ecological integrity of these recovering forests and the Gualala River.

Poehlman said hello to a stranger driving an SUV on his road a couple of years ago and was surprised to learn that he was a new neighbor, a lawyer from Las Vegas, and an enthusiastic would-be amateur grower of pinot. He had put in an application to the California Department of Forestry (CDF) to clear cut 25 acres of redwood forest and put in grapes. There are dozens of other conversions slated to go in this watershed, three of them within a mile of Poehlman's property.

One project is backed by Artessa, a winery owned by Codorniu of Spain, the largest winery in the world. Two years ago, Artessa applied for a permit to cut down 114 acres of forest near here. Though they have since reduced that project to 64 acres, it could still significantly increase sedimentation in the river, reducing the amount of water available to the recovering but still desperate coho and steelhead. Add pesticides from vineyard runoff, says Baye, and the impact would be significant.

Converting redwood forest to vineyard takes some doing. First, the trees are cut, their roots extracted, and about four feet of soil is scraped off the surface. Mold poses a particular danger to grapes, and conifer forests contain all kinds of threatening fungi and bacteria that need to be purged with herbicides and fungicides. Then the acid in the soil is neutralized with the addition of a lot of lime. Finally, the newly planted vines are fenced to keep deer and other unwelcome animals out. In effect, the native terroir, the ostensible raison d'etre for the entire enterprise, is annihilated.

In November 2004 the Sierra Club and FoGR filed a suit against the CDF for approving three of the conversion applications without requiring environmental impact reports (EIRs) from the applicants. All of them are located close together along the Little River, a tributary of the Gualala. Right now the vineyard projects are on hold until the case is decided, which will likely be this spring, says Poehlman.

"If environmental reviews are actually conducted," says Dave Jordan, also a member of FoGR, "I don't see how they could find no significant environmental impact. They're cutting down biodiverse redwood forest and planting a monocrop. How could that have 'no significant environmental impact,' the standard required by CDF for allowing conversions?"

If there were just one 25-acre conversion, the watershed could handle it, says Poehlman. And that is the way CDF has traditionally been evaluating these projects-one at time. "But put dozens of these little conversions in and, from an environmental perspective, it's a definite loss. The cumulative impact would be devastating," he says. Tens of thousands of acres of vineyards are now being proposed or planned for these hills. Much of that is traceable back to their designation, by Kendall-Jackson, as a terroir perfect for pinot noir.

Meanwhile, vintners are searching for the perfect grape in other wild parts of the state as well. In southern Lake County, for instance, a new vineyard operator just got permission to cut down 109 acres of native blue oaks and replace them with grapes. Because they are merely oaks, considered a non-commercial tree by the Department of Forestry, no EIR is required. A group of neighbors and environmentalists is suing the county on the grounds that the conversion will alter the hydrology of the area and warrants a full EIR. The case will not be heard until May. In the meantime, the vineyard developer is free to cut down the approximately 1,100 oaks and will likely do so when the winter rains end.

I'll never hear "oaky" applied to wine again without thinking of these trees.

Oak woodlands are particularly vulnerable to vineyard conversion. Unlike redwoods and other timber trees, no government agency regulates their destruction. Yet, according to Mills College botanist Bruce Pavlik, oak woodlands may be the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems in California, providing critical habitat for approximately 2,000 plants, more than 100 birds, 60 mammals, 80 amphibians and reptiles, and 5,000 insect species.

Chris Malin is a well-known environmentalist in Napa. From her home high on Atlas Ridge she has worked for years for greater environmental regulation of vineyard conversions and greater monitoring of their cumulative impacts on the Napa River Watershed and throughout the state. She watched through the booming 90s as vineyards and their associated trophy mansions overflowed the valley and crept up into the hills. And Napa probably has the strictest conversion regulations of any of the prime grape growing counties in the state. As once-wild lands are converted to agriculture, and roads, water, and other infrastructure are put in, the threshold for other types of building such as housing drops. Malan fears such two-step conversions may become common in the future if wine grape prices bottom out or the crops fall prey to some devastating pest. In many rural areas, zoning regulations allow for agricultural conversions but prohibit more intensive uses such as housing development. However, Malan points out, zoning regulations are only as good as the supervisors who make them. Supervisors get replaced and zoning regulations rewritten all the time.

I asked Poehlman if he knew of any two-step conversions, where wildlands had been first converted to agriculture and then to housing. He paused for only a moment before answering, "How about San Jose? Santa Rosa?" Or, I added, my hometown, Oakland.

Gordy Slack is a freelance science and nature writer and a California Wild contributing editor.