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Premier Pacific, environmentalists battle it out over Sonoma forest lands

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Premier Pacific Vineyards, the big vineyard development company whose leaders include former Napa vintner William Hill, finds itself embroiled in a heated tussle with local environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Gualala River, over PPV’s plan to develop 1,800 acres of vineyards in the high coastal hills near Annapolis, on the Sonoma Coast. According to a report published in th Santa Rosa Press Democrat, PPV purchased the land in 2004 for $28.5 million. Despite the company’s promise to plant 1 million new trees, critics of the project worry that development will invariably harm the mountainous region’s ecosystem and diversity.

It’s always hard in a case like this to know who’s right. I know from experience that some of the more extreme environmentalists in western Sonoma are basically against any development of the land at all, which seems to me to be an unrealistic attitude. Some years ago, Marimar Torres told me how eco-terrorists repeatedly struck in the middle of the night, vandalizing her property and spraypainting roadsigns, because she wanted to develop a beautiful, organic, highly progressive vineyard in the Green Valley.

But I also know that a big corporate entity can be insensitive and ride roughshod over the concerns of locals. PPV owns many thousands of acres of vineyard from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, on up to Oregon and Washington and down into the Santa Rita Hills. When PPV first began development down in Santa Barbara, some vintners there privately expressed their concern that the area’s personality and natural infrastructure might be harmed. Yesterday I asked a friend of mine, who is a player in the Santa Rita Hills, what has been the local reaction to PPV, and he replied, “It is with no hesitation that I say that they have not been favorable shepherds of the land down here.  I fear that a lot of their development has been irresponsible (and dangerous for crews down the road) and they are unscrupulous about taking crews away from other farming companies.”

As I said, it’s hard to know who’s right. In the case of the Sonoma project, it’s on hiatus until an EIR has been completed. And even that might not satisfy some of those involved.

P.S. Please check my final word on the Spectator issue at Wine Enthusiast’s unreserved.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    I love vineyards as much as trees, and I like hillside vineyards, but the devil’s always in the details. Looking at what agriculture in general with its water appropriation and runoff has done to the steelhead in the Napa River over the last century would give anyone pause about the potential impacts or any type of agriculture on a pristine forested environment.

    I always take these offsets (planting a million trees) with a grain of salt. Usually, on close examination you find that if there is a place where a million trees can be planted, they are going to be planted there one way of the other. Paying money to someone like Werhauser money to plant trees is not really an offset. More like a fee to develop.

    A recent paper reviewed in Science showed that it takes 137 years of farming to recover the carbon released from a forest being converted to agriculture. Even with offsets, 1800 acres of forest cleared for vineyard with access roads, and water development will change the local ecology. Even if phased over a decade, the project is 180 acres a year.

    The first vineyard developed by clearing forest by Bill Hill was on Diamond Mountain and it was an erosion disaster. The terraces were cut wrong, many slipped, runoff cut gullies down the slope. Mt. Veeder was a little better. It wasn’t just Bill Hill, everyone was on the learning curve. The erosion disaster at Viader that fouled the Bell Canyon Reservior brought the Napa County, Fish and Game and others into it and requirements for erosion control plans and inspections before any development. It’s more under control now, though some still cheat since there is little enforcement.

    Rain water hitting established old forest runs off clear. Rainwater hitting a new vineyard even with the best of cover crop, erosion control, and silt fencing will have several years of brown silt laden runoff. This affects stream beds and spawning grounds. Even the best, most conscientious efforts are not without impacts. I lean toward leaving the forests as forest and putting vineyard somewhere they are now growing hay or grazing dairy cattle.

  2. Morton: “I lean toward leaving the forests as forest and putting vineyard somewhere they are now growing hay or grazing dairy cattle.” Then that would eliminate mountain vineyards?

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    As someone who appreciates wines from some pretty steep slopes around the world, I guess I could argue it both ways. It’s just that some projects make more sense than others. It’s one thing to take some steep rolling grass covered hills in Carneros that have been grazing dairy cattle and convert them to vineyard. You may even increase biodiversity. Or when in the 1800′s clear cut forest was replanted in vineyard, well what’s done is done and we should be thankful that those vineyards remain in the hands of thoughtful people.

    But the development of 1800 acres of vineyard in rugged forested country is over ten times the size of the largest hillside project that I am aware. When you consider the ecosystem in that big area and how drastically it changes when every bit of vegetation and habitat is removed, every animal dislocated, the terrain re- contoured, the trenching for pipelines, the dust and noise, the reservoir construction, the road construction, the diversion of water, and then the immense effort to prevent erosion. And when you consider there are always mistakes.

    On Diamond Mountain one of the repair projects for the original Bill Hill development (it was purchased and repaired by Sterling) was to build a sediment control basin. During one storm that basin filled, did what it was supposed to do, and effectively allowed that rainwater to drain into the ground. A half mile away down hill, a spring in that same storm exploded in a mass of mud and debris taking down trees and structures for about a mile down one canyon. An unintended consequence of repairing another problem created by the original development. One mistake like that could destroy habitat miles away in a stream bed.

    Little dabs of hillside vineyard here and there developed over a century on terrain that is suitable, particularly where the vegetation and ecosystem wasn’t that special to begin with, is one thing. Developing a few acres at a time on a property while carefully controlling impacts is possible. Razing 1800 acres of forest in a short time period in the name of wine is another.

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