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Forests or vineyards? North Coast can’t decide


This is a tough call. Fine winemakers want to put Pinot Noir where redwoods and Douglas firs grow now, and environmentalists say No! You can’t rip out these wonderful trees for a farm crop.

I see both sides. Nobody more than I wants more great coastal Pinot Noir, and this area is right there in the Sonoma Coast AVA that produces such great wine. Can’t have too much of that.

On the other hand, our big trees are some of our greatest natural treasures. Anyone who lives in the Bay Area, even the innermost parts such as I do, is only a short drive away from pristine nature. You’ve all heard the bad stuff about Oakland, but within our city limits–a ten minute drive from my house–are hills and valleys as wild as they were before the white man invaded these parts.

Nobody of good conscience wants to see our wildlands destroyed. Yet that doesn’t mean not a single redwood tree or fir can ever be cut down. The area in question doesn’t include Old Growth redwoods, which would be protected. These are subsequent generation trees. There are young redwood trees across the street from where I live. I’d hate to see them cut down for any reason–but I’d hate to see any of the trees on my street cut down, whether they’re oak, magnolia or Doug fir. So I can’t see exempting redwoods from cutting down simply because of the name of their species.

This contentiousness between environmentalists and vineyardists is nothing new in California. I’ve reported for years on ongoing battles between (sometimes anonymous) defenders of the land against winery interests who want to terraform the hills and install vineyards. My instincts are usually with the wineries. I happen to think that vineyards are very beautiful things, and while they’re not “natural,” strictly speaking, they’re preferable to most any other kind of development. But, yes, it’s true that a wild, untouched landscape is the most beautiful of all.

There has to be a balance between preservation and development, which means that each side has to be willing to talk to the other and give a little. Lord knows, compromise is not popular these days. Just look at the BART situation in San Francisco and the protestors who want to shut down train stations because BART turned off their cell phone signals a week ago. I’m not taking sides in that one–but whenever both sides in a pitched battle become intransigent, things just get worse, and solutions fade away.

In this particular case, it seems nearly impossible to find a middle ground. One one side are Pomo Native Americans who are incensed that their tribal burial grounds and sacred spaces are being tampered with. On the other are the winery economic interests that, if successful, will bring much needed jobs and tax revenues to Sonoma County, which like most counties isn’t doing so well these days.

Like Rodney King once asked, Why can’t we all just get along?

  1. Curtis Phillips says:

    Even though I’ve been a professional winemaker, and a pinot noir specialist, my entire adult life, I side with the Pomo on this one. We’ve raped the forests of California enough. It’s well past time to stop.

  2. Sonoma’s about to cut off its nose to spite its face.
    200 acres to be converted into vineyards and estates is extreme. Let the 1st 200 acres go, and surely countless more 200 acres will follow. And just because its not a 1st growth forest doesn’t mean that it’s not a mature and thriving ecosystem – or that its less worthy of preservation. Much of the old growth forests surrounding the Bay Area were deforested 105 years ago in order to rebuild the region after the 1906 earthquake. In my opinion, that’s cause enough to leave them alone out of respect for the past and future generations.
    One of the opponents in the article had it right – there is plenty of land available that is NOT forest. As an industry, I would like to see us collectively say we will exhaust all other options available before encroaching on nature.
    And what about the Santa Cruz Mtns? Much of that region is nearly identical to the Sonoma coast region, and the Skyline ridge there has vast areas of land that are pasture and undeveloped. Much of it is preserved open space, but I’ve heard of few stellar Pinots coming from those hills. Rhys being one of them.
    I know it’s about give and take and everyone getting along, but it’s a shame to me that once something becomes “hot” (i.e. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir) the compromises seem severe and consequences great.

  3. Jon R Campbell says:

    while the northcoast has plenty of vineyards and redwoods the one thing it traditionally lacked was jobs……..

  4. Michael Larner says:

    Not to sound like a total “tree hugger” but there has to be some North Coast land elsewhere that shares similar site characteristics to achieve world class pinot without cutting down any Redwoods – after all they were there first, and for quite some time. Besides if Pinot is so temperamental, why develop a vineyard with soil imbalances that you spend more time cultivating and treating from the intricate redwood roots and fir rich soils. Similarly, Santa Barbara County had dealt with Oak tree removal for vineyard development, and sure enough NDVI imaging shows stunted vines in circular shapes where the trees used to be.There is far too much land in California suitable for vineyards that don’t have so much baggage with them. Yet it could be worse, vineyards are more tolerate of other environmental impacts, like sub-surface fracking for oil and gas, but you can’t drive through the trunk of a vine. Sounds like a density thing, I just can’t wait till someone applies the same vineyard development logic to a suburb. Then the tree falling in the forest will make one hell of a sound.

  5. Steve Hare says:

    I attended Humboldt State University in the late 1970’s as a Forestry major. After the lower division courses were completed, I took the General Forestry class which featured a lecture by the department chariman as to the long term outlook we had for jobs in the industry. He informed us that none of us would be able to get any forestry jobs as humans had spent over 100 years cutting down the trees. As Redwoods can take 1,500 years to fully mature, this left many of us with questions about our future.

    We cannot continue to justify altering our planet for the short term justification of more jobs-that is old age thinking. We, as a people, must become more creative to live within our means and our enviornmental constraints.

  6. I do not think that “True Coast” vintners endanger “The Forests”. The only spots suitable out in west county are above the fog line. The environmentalists try to portray wineries as destroyers of the land when in fact only the ridge tops can be planted, the rest of the land is left UNTOUCHED. We can have both forests and vineyards! There are few vineyards located in Sonoma Coast and people should no be concerned with development getting out of hand, the area is not suitable for large scale production. The big buys will stick to flat land and fertile. soils. The people who come out to the True Coast have a passion for what they do and are very respectful to the environment. I do not see the balance shifting from nature to vineyard anytime soon.

  7. This shouldn’t happen. Take away immediate human concerns such as profit, and look as objectively as possible for the genuine “right” thing to do, and the trees win, by a huge margin. The reasons for it are more rationalizations than expressions of fundamental necessity. Coast redwoods naturally grow only in one area on Earth, California. From Big Sur to just past Oregon border and for only about 40 miles from the ocean, they cling to strip of coastal mountains here and that’s it. We can grow plenty of good, even great pinot grapes elsewhere, as we have done and will continue to do.

    We’ve destroyed over 96% of the original forest that existed when the Spanish arrived. Spend some time hiking deep into Jed Smith or Prairie Creek Parks and you begin to realize what we destroyed and how INCREDIBLE a place the north coast forests must have been prior to the arrival of Europeans. Once you experience the rather limited and confined but also best remaining old growth areas it becomes shockingly clear how utterly rapacious we have been.

    While those areas are magical, when one considers it is all there is, and there won’t be any more any time soon due to the many hundreds of years (even thousands) it takes to create, one can’t help but feel terrible about our species. Viable healthy forest ecosystems need to be as large and contiguous as possible, so even though these areas aren’t virgin old growth they still matter a great deal in doing what we can to restore as much as possible, for a multitude of reasons.

    This project is an unnecessary indulgence and I hope it doesn’t happen.

  8. J.R. Wirth says:

    I love redwood, it makes great patio furniture. If you want to see redwoods, go to the Muir Woods and pay your eight dollars. A good pinot climate can’t be wasted on trees.

  9. No matter how many silt fences and erosion control measures they use,the water that comes off the vineyard will be a muddy brown for a decade or two.

  10. Hard to type with an arm in a sling, I wanted to say more. It isn’t just the loss of the redwoods that is of concern. The silt finds its way to the gravely beds of the treams where steelhead spawn. Survival of the spawn depends on the free flow of the water thru the gravel which the silt prevents.

    There are plenty of places to grow great Pinot,albeit out of state without razing a forest.

  11. My family home is nestled in the redwoods across the Russian River from Korbel. It was built by my grandfather who took me to swimming lessons when I was five. I also make wine for a living, a great deal of which happens to be Pinot Noir. So much for my West County background. The idea of cutting down redwoods for vineyards is a mistake, plus it is a PR blunder that will only become worse. With so many options to plant elsewhere, it’s quite possible for everyone to “get along”, but not under the current scenario. Some people will not take this lying down; I am concerned about the “push-back” becoming extreme. When it comes to decimating Redwoods, emotion takes over and reason gets thrown under the bus. Premier Pacific et al should consider other options.

  12. The source article stated it best: “redwoods-to-vineyards conversions are worse than clear-cutting because they are permanent.”
    Team Pomo.

  13. Paul Dolan says:

    Thanks for bringing this subject up again. I thought we tackled this several years ago during the meteoric rise in vineyards thru out CA.
    It is nice to see that the general sentiment is that it would be inappropriate to remove tree, especially conifers to plant vineyards.
    We tend to forget how many years it takes to develop to beautiful redwoods and firs.
    We clearly have become much more sensitized to the environmental issues surrounding wine growing here in CA. I think it is something we can be proud of.

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