In the fog-shrouded forests of California’s remote North Coast, winemakers believe they’ve found the perfect terrain to grow the notoriously fickle pinot noir grape prized by connoisseurs.
Vineyard developers are snapping up thousands of acres of redwoods and firs in Sonoma County, with plans to clear the trees and plant the once-obscure varietal made famous by the wine-fueled road trip film “Sideways.”
Environmentalists and residents in Annapolis, a tiny town about 85 miles north of San Francisco, are trying to rein in the pinot lovers. They’re fighting the conversion of timberlands into vineyards, which they say destroys wildlife habitat, erodes the soil, contaminates the water with pesticides and opens the door to development.
“If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve seen the glassy-eyed stare they have when they talk about their plans to produce pinot noir up here,” said resident Chris Poehlmann, who opposes vineyard conversions. “We feel it’s much more important for future generations to have forests on these hills than wine grapes.”
As demand for California wine grows, vintners are looking for new terrain beyond traditional wine-growing regions such as the Napa and Sonoma valleys, where available land is scarce and expensive.
Increasingly, developers are buying up land in remote, ecologically fragile areas such as northwest Sonoma County, where roads and electricity are available and land is relatively affordable. Many property owners here are eager to turn their forests into vineyards because wine grapes, especially for high-end pinot noir, are worth more than timber, which is increasingly expensive to harvest due to stringent regulations.
Curbs to be voted on
Alarmed by the trend, Sonoma County supervisors are set to consider new rules next month that would limit vineyard conversions on nearly 200,000 acres of forests.
“There are plenty of places to plant grapes in Sonoma County without cutting down redwood forests,” said Supervisor Mike Reilly, who advocates more restrictions. “I think people have a special feeling for the redwood forests here and they don’t want to see them taken away.”
Sonoma is just one of several Northern California counties trying to balance the interests of the wine industry and the environment.
The latest battlefront is this sparsely populated region where a cool climate and sandy soil offer ideal conditions to grow the delicate, thin-skinned pinot noir grape.
“The vines are a bit stressed, so the fruit is more concentrated and produces more intense flavors,” said Barbara Scalabrini, who with her husband opened the area’s first winery — Annapolis Winery — about 20 years ago.
After vintners declared northwest Sonoma County the “new terroir” for pinot noir in the late 1990s, developers began buying up land and planting vines. Kendall Jackson was the first major wine company to develop vineyards in the area. About a dozen, mostly small, vineyards have opened since and more are in the works.
The early vineyards were planted on former apple orchards, but most of that land has already been replanted with grapes so landowners started applying to turn their woodlands into vineyards.
Make wine and help forests?
The most ambitious — and controversial — project is Preservation Ranch. Premium Pacific Vineyards purchased about 20,000 acres and wants to turn up to 2,000 acres into vineyards, mostly on hills and ridges. The Napa developer plans to use wine profits to restore forests on the remaining 18,000 acres.
“We believe this is going to be a model for how you can restore damaged, wounded lands,” said Richard Wollack, co-chief executive of Premium Pacific Vineyards.
A group of Annapolis residents formed Friends of the Gualala River and teamed up with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to protect the forests. They say there isn’t enough water to support more vineyards, which pollute the river and soil and threaten salmon and other wildlife with runoff.
“We’re not saying you shouldn’t drink wine. We’re saying there are more appropriate lands to grow wine grapes on,” said Keith Kaulum, a local Sierra Club activist.
Currently, landowners who want to convert timberlands must apply for a permit from the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a process that usually requires a rigorous series of environmental studies.
But environmentalists and local residents say permit standards are too lax. Last year, environmental groups sued the agency for approving plans without environmental review.
Activists unhappy with proposed curbs
The proposed county ordinance would ban vineyards from displacing redwoods and Douglas firs that produce high-quality wood products. Land with other trees could be developed, but only if it benefits the public and the landowner plants two acres of high-quality timberland for every acre of grapes.
Supervisor Reilly said Sonoma County would become the first California county to regulate timberland conversions. Premium Pacific Vineyards has endorsed the proposed rules, but opponents say the rules don’t go far enough.
“The county ordinance as it’s written has been watered down to the point where it really doesn’t protect forests,” said John Holland, president of Friends of the Gualala River. “What’s at stake is whether a redwood ecosystem that’s taken thousands of years to develop will exist or be eliminated.”
Fears of a glut
Some Sonoma County wine growers are worried that planting more pinot vineyards could result in a glut of high-end wines.
Nick Frey, who heads the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, said 10,000 of the county’s 60,000 acres of vineyards already grow pinot noir grapes, and they face plenty of competition from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. He said wines over $25 a bottle only make up 4 percent of the U.S. wine market, of which high-end pinot makes up only a tiny slice.
“We always have to remember that we’re selling into a very small market,” Frey said. “Pinot noir is really hot right now ... but that could change. You could be one crop away from having excessive supply.”