Trouble in “Wine Country”


Sonoma County, Northern California, used to be spoken of as part of the natural “Redwood Empire.” Then the bloated wine industry re-named it as the commercial “Wine Country.” A growing number of locals have had it with the expanding wine industry in both Sonoma County and the neighboring Napa County and are beginning to challenge their over-expansion.

A moral person would not buy “blood diamonds.” It is time to consider the various environmental, climate change, and human factors when one buys Sonoma or Napa County wines.

California is experiencing a drought, which may be long lasting. Estimates vary as to how much water is required to do all the things that it takes to grow grapes, then produce wine, and truck it out of the region. Reliable sources indicate that it is around two-dozen gallons of water to produce a single glass of wine. So that water leaves local communities and is exported around the world.

“Researchers predict ‘mega-drought,’” read the banner headline across the Feb. 16 front page’s top of the daily Press Democrat in Sonoma County. Scientists document that a drought could last 35 years. While local residents are encouraged to reduce water use, the new and expanded wineries want to use more of our precious, life-giving water for their exclusive mono-crop and thus export our limited, common water out of the county. California’s historic water wars are likely to heat up as the wine industry demands more than its fair share, which threatens wells in rural areas.

Residents from throughout Sonoma County are meeting to strategize about challenging recent proposals for new and expanded wineries as event centers in rural areas. Meanwhile, the nearby Napa County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a March 10 meeting to hear critics of winery over-development.

The huge Dairyman Winery and Distillery proposed for the high-speed Highway 12 in the greenbelt separator between small town Sebastopol and the capital city of Santa Rosa has been the main target of local opponents. It would be near the intersection of an already congested two-lane highway and the frequently-flooded Llano Road in the vulnerable Laguna de Santa Rosa vicinity.

Groups such as Sonoma County Conservation Action, Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, Sebastopol Water Information Group, Rural Alliance, Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, and Apple Roots sent critical comments on Dairyman to Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD).

Vocal Dairyman opponents include a former County supervisor, former mayor, former Planning Commissioner, and former PRMD planner. Environmental scientists, sustainability advocates, food farmers, concerned parents, and the maker of the acclaimed film “Russian River: All Rivers” have spoken against the Dairyman application.

They oppose it on many grounds: congested traffic; water over-use, especially during droughts; blocking the popular Joe Rodota trail; damaging the fragile Laguna de Santa Rosa and its wildlife; zoning violations; chemical use that would pollute water, air, and land; and violating the Sonoma County General Plan.

Grape growers and the wine industry contribute valuable benefits to Sonoma County. Most critics appreciate a good glass of local wine. But they advocate moderation when it comes to such proposals, contending that Dairyman is too big and in the wrong place.

Imagine tipsy tasters crossing the popular Joe Rodota Trail, full of bikers, skateboarders, children in strollers, walkers, and pets and then entering 60 miles-an-hour traffic. The application demands that Trail users “yield” to the winery’s many vehicles attending up to 58 events a year with as many as 600 people a time.

Who is in charge here? The public or wineries? Sonoma County Parks owns the Trail. Since when can a winery privatize public property and make demands on its use, prioritizing their wealth? Who has the right-of-way?

Sebastopol City Council member John Eder, at the February 3 hearing on Dairyman, suggested that if approved by Sonoma County “civil disobedience would be appropriate.”

“This proposal includes a restaurant-like commercial kitchen in a winery,” commented former Sonoma County Fifth District Supervisor Ernie Carpenter. “That is prohibited by the County’s General Plan.”

NAPA Residents Challenge Wine Industry

“This is not just a local issue,” said one long-term rural resident at a recent meeting. “We need to make community decisions about such regional land use issues.”

“Napa is out of land and water for investors to expand,” wrote Santa Rosa’s Carol Vellutini. “Sonoma and Lake still have some room and our water issues seem to be swept under the table.”

“Napa County to Explore the Price of Wine Success” headlines a Feb. 14 article in the Napa County Register that confirms Vellutini’s claim. “Napa County is wrestling with the notion that wineries may be getting too big and the problems associated with that growth,” reports the paper. “The Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission will address the issue in a March 10 meeting. Critics of winery growth have seized on plans for the Yountville Hill Winery on Highway 29, replacing a defunct hilltop bed & breakfast.”

“Some people say there are too many wineries emphasizing too much tourism and generating too much traffic while sucking aquifers dry,” the Napa article adds. Sound familiar? “Some people say the county is driving like a drunken sailor down the road and is going to put the long-term agricultural preserve in a ditch,” said Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, who grew up in the city of Napa.

Huge Dairyman Contrasts with Small Char Vale Winery 

Eighteen speakers at Sebastopol City Council’s Feb. 3 meeting spoke against Dairyman. No one spoke in favor of it. Mayor Patrick Slayter sent a strong letter recommending to the County–who will eventually make the decision–that they deny the application.

Exactly two weeks after the Sebastopol Council voted 5-0 to recommend rejection of the Dairyman Winery, the new Char Vale Winery hosted neighbors at their Occidental Road site north of Sebastopol for a dialogue on its application. Representatives from Friends of the Atascadero Wetlands attended.

Char Vale planner and project manager Steve Martin initiated a cordial educational exchange of views. The small winery wants to upgrade an existing use permit from 2000 to 4000 cases a year. In contrast, Dairyman seeks a new permit for 500,000 cases of wine and 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits. They want nearly 100,000 square feet of buildings and pads, as well as permits to be open as late as 10 p.m. at night.

“It’s always important to get feedback from neighbors,” Martin opened the discussion. “I’m concerned with the constant threat to the wetlands,” neighbor Jo Bentz said. “One man trashed the area around the Atascadero Creek a few years ago. Wildlife is abundant here. We’ve destroyed over 90% of California’s wetlands. Old-timers say they used to fish out of this creek. I don’t want to stop the project but to enhance the environment.” Bentz and others requested wildlife friendly fences and lighting.

Char Vale owners agreed to consider improving the riparian corridor. “We are hopeful that the owners will take advantage of the opportunity to restore and protect the riparian habitat. It would be good publicity for them and good for the environment,” commented Anna Ransome of Friends of the Atascadero Wetlands. Neighbors plan to keep watchful eyes on how Char Vale develops.

This contrasted to how Joe Wagner did not really provide many specific details of Dairyman’s plans or answer questions at the Sebastopol Council meeting.

Winery Expansions in the News

A flurry of articles and letters on winery applications recently have appeared in the daily Press Democrat (PD), on Waccobb.net, Sonoma County Gazette, Sonoma West, and the AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser) in nearby Mendocino County. Groups from the Gualala River Watershed, Westside Community Association, and Dry Creek Valley Association have opposed the many pending rural winery expansions.

The largest current development being challenged is the $41 million purchase of La Campagna’s 186 acres near Kenwood by a Chinese firm. It was previously stalled by a lawsuit filed by the Valley of the Moon Alliance. The approval of such winery projects could set a dangerous precedent, claims the Rural Alliance.

Though the Dairyman application only became public in early February, the local daily promptly published four letters in less than two weeks opposing the growth of winery/event centers and only one defending the growing wine industry.

“Many of us would rather see our precious farm land and groundwater utilized in the production of edible foods and not in something we cannot eat,” wrote Jacqueline Schael in a Feb. 17 letter under the headline “People vs. Vineyards.” Currently over 65,000 Sonoma County acres are in winegrapes and only about 12,000 in food crops. Critics wonder “when is enough enough?”

“County vineyard, event center and development projects appear to be making a full court press on what some see as the commons, to cash in on a gentrification/ tourist boom,” writes Fred Allebach. Ironically, he lives in Vineburg in the Sonoma Valley.

“Millions of gallons of water would be exported out of Sonoma County — inside bottles of wine. Record-setting drought or not, this is justifiable cause for alarm,” wrote Thomas Bonfigli in a Feb. 13 PD letter challenging Dairyman. Since it takes around 30 gallons of water to do the many things requiring water to make a glass of wine, this would export needed water out of our county. In addition, the substantial money from the winery would go to the Napa owners and their wealthy investors, causing some people to describe it as the further “Napafication” of Sonoma County.

“Perhaps the most egregious problem is that it would make two of the most dangerous roads in west county – Highway 12 and Llano Road – more dangerous,” Bonfigli continued. “Increasing the number of intoxicated individuals would increase the potential for vehicle accidents and fatalities.”

The new and expanded wineries have been the talk of the county this month. “Dairyman is a truck-in, truck-out operation. They would truck in most of their grapes and then truck out the wine” commented Thomas Morabito, an opponent of the Best Winery expansion for three years. The greenhouse gas emissions would worsen chaotic climate change and pollute the air, water and land.

Joe Wagner admitted to the Sebastopol Council that Dairyman would not be organic, as evidenced by the yellowing grass around its front fence, near the pools of water into which the herbicides flow and contaminate. The many chemicals used by such industrial operations would further pollute the vulnerable Laguna de Santa Rosa and damage its wildlife, including the endangered tiger salamander.

A movement against the expansion of rural wineries is growing and could lead to more calls for a moratorium on all new wineries, especially those wanting to be industrial, commercial event centers, located away from urban centers. They spoil pastoral splendor and quality of life in our beautiful semi-rural county.

Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: 3sb@comcast.net.

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