Northern California’s Sonoma County has been known historically as part of the natural Redwood Empire. Wine industry lobbyists re-branded it as the commercial “Wine Country.” Its economy has been so colonized by outside investors, who extract water and resources from the environment and export them, that re-branding would be appropriate. A more accurate description would be that Sonoma County is now part of the multi-national Wine Empire.
Locals and nature have been dominated by these outside investors; they reap the benefits, while the environment and the residents pay the costs. They have de-localized, industrialized, commercialized, urbanized and commodified a once diverse agrarian place and culture with their excessive wine production and tourism.
I am one of many military veterans who fled cities for the woods to recover within nature. I moved to the countryside of small town Sebastopol and worked that land into a productive food farm. For nearly two-dozen years, I have lived amidst an abundance of redwoods, oaks, wildflowers, other vegetation, much wildlife, apple trees, and delicious boysenberries. We must work to preserve those natural resources and our agrarian culture.
Many rural locals are alarmed by the transformation of our county into a globalized Wine Empire and have been expressing that in various ways in recent years. The world’s largest Big Wine corporations– such as Constellation, Gallo, and Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris)–have colonized Sonoma County. Investors from far away, many of whom have never even visited our lovely county, are the main owners. Locals and this land have become their cash cow, which they bleed and de-water.
Even investors from China have bought part of our county. Last year a subsidiary of the Chinese developer Oceanside Holdings paid $41 million for a permitted resort and winery in the iconic Valley of the Moon. Another large Chinese developer, Zhu Wenchen, then bought Tolay Springs. China’s middle class is growing, and they like California wine. Wine barons from here go to China to recruit investors and promote their brands.
In describing the excessive powers and undemocratic ways of the Wine Empire, also active in other nearby California North Coast counties, one activist from the threatened Lake County used terms such as “Wine Dictatorship” and “Wine Oligarchy.”
GoLocal is a productive group that works to reverse this trend by supporting local businesses, including family vineyards and wineries. Though they have hundreds of members, theirs is a classic David vs. Goliath story.
Chainsaws Butcher Redwoods
The Wine Empire’s chainsaws butcher redwoods, oaks, and other native trees, even without the required permits. This has been described as the “Whoops” strategy by long-term environmentalist Helen Shane.
Without permits, trees are toppled to make way for long, straight, rigid, regimented rows of stakes into the Earth’s heart. Big fences are constructed to keep everything except this mono-crop out. The wildlife that survived in that habitat for centuries either finds homes elsewhere or perishes.
“When found out,” Shane added, “the developers pay a penalty and go on their ways. It’s more lucrative and efficient for them not to undergo the permitting process. They just blast away and pay a penalty after the fact. They’ve found it less cumbersome and iffy than following laws and ordinances.”
The tightly-pruned world of grapes on stakes lacks wildness, demonstrates fear of nature, and an extractive sense of reducing bio-diversity to a mere commodity to be bought and sold. Some of Big Wine’s vineyards display carefully-managed flowers, but seldom the wildflowers that bloom widely at this time of year.
Wine grapes are a notorious boom and bust crop and will surely bust. Over 60,000 acres in Sonoma County are planted to wine grapes and only about 12,000 to food crops; this is a dangerous imbalance.
The new, large vineyards tend to be conventional, rather than organic. They spray herbicides and other pesticides. Those poisons drift a long way and land on people and other unintended life forms.
For example, Paul Hobbs’ recent 47-acre vineyard converted from an apple orchard exemplifies this industrializing trend. He located it next to the rural Apple Blossom School, Orchard View School, and Tree House Hollow pre-school, with children as young as two and three years old. Parents and neighbors objected, but unfortunately the Wine Empire rules.
The Watertrough Childrens Alliance (WCA) challenged “bad apple” Hobbs. They dogged him and observed him breaking rules. They turned him in and he was charged by the County with violations such as clear-cutting redwood forests without permits and soil erosion. The County issued a “stop work” order, which slowed Hobbs down. He was liable for millions of dollars in fines. The County settled for a mere $100,000. Its regulations are not enforced equally. The Wine Empire rules.
Hobbs was back spraying this February, though he signed a Memorandum of Understanding that he would not do so without informing the schools. A repeat offender, he did not inform them.
In the bio-diverse Redwood Empire, tall trees rule. In the mono-crop Wine Empire, two-footed wine barons rule.
All Empires Rise and Fall
All empires rise and fall, including the powerful Ottoman, British, and Soviet empires. Some fall with more grace than others. Many Wine Empire residents may be fed-up enough with its rulers to at least seek to down-size Big Wine, leaving the local grape growers and wine makers. Many work hard, make good wine, and deserve support for being organic, bio-dynamic, bio-diverse and employing sustainable farming practices, such as dry farming.
Nature could stop the Wine Empire, perhaps in the form of its punishing drought. After four relentless drought years and more expected, there are still 62 current applications for new or expanded vineyards and wineries in Sonoma County to add to the hundreds already here.
It takes around 30 gallons of water to make one glass of wine. That water will come from our common, limited water supply. Thirsty mammals and other animals suffer when a small elite of mainly outsiders benefit from what should belong equally to all of us.
The Wine Empire extracts our water, processes it in factories, and imports it as wine. Along the way, they damage oxygen-providing, life-giving trees that pull moisture out of the air to the ground, and reduce diverse scenic views. They pollute the air with their truck in/truck out operations. Huge tanker trucks bring in grapes from out of the county and sell it at premium prices as “bottled in Sonoma County.”
The Wine Empire is on a collision course with nature and Sonoma County’s rural residents. Even the pro-wine industry daily Press Democrat (PD) adds references to “an increasingly contentious battle over winery development in Sonoma County,” as a PD writer did in the first sentence of an April 28 article on “controversial winery applications.” That article later refers to a “pronounced backlash from rural residents.”
The writing is on the wall. For example, Napa County’s Wagner wine family applied to build the Dairyman Winery and Distillery on the fast-moving two-lane Highway 12 between small town Sebastopol and the county’s largest city, Santa Rosa. It came to the attention of the public on Feb. 3 at a Sebastopol City Council meeting. After 18 citizens spoke against it, with only the applicant favoring it, the Council voted 5-0 to recommend rejection to the County, in whose jurisdiction it is.
“Civil disobedience” is what Councilmember John Eder suggested could eventually stop this winery as an event center. Dairyman wants a huge facility that would host over one event a week with up to 600 guests and as late as 10 p.m. This would be in the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetlands, habitat for endangered species.
A group of citizens, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, promptly set up a Facebook page and website. In a few weeks that page had nearly 1000 “likes.” (https://www.facebook.com/preserveruralsonomacounty)
Though the Wagners wanted to avoid an expensive Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to see if the project conforms to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), after citizens’ pressure, they were required to do so. That would cost around $500,000 and take around a year. This apparently would raise their current expenses to over $5 million.
The Wine Empire is in damage control, though it still has much power. Like other wounded beasts, it can still do significant damage.
Meanwhile, we locals live here. We love what remains of our semi-rural Sonoma County. Many of us have dug in. We know our neighbors. We do not plan to leave. We support local grape growers and wine makers who locate themselves in appropriate places where their tasting rooms are not on narrow, rural roads, thus endangering the rest of us.
Wineries belong in urban areas and along the Highway 101 corridor, which are zoned for industry. They do not belong in areas zoned for natural resources, agriculture and rural residence, since they have become mainly event centers for weddings and entertainment, which are not ag. Grape growing is only a small part of what Big Wine does, most of which is not truly agriculture.
A new group with the tentative name Four County Network (4CN) has already had three regional meetings involving residents from the nearby North Coast counties of Napa, Lake, and Mendocino. It has another meeting scheduled for June.
“The loss of farm land and dairy land to vineyards, as well as the struggle to keep small, organic farms going is serious,” said a member of the new 4CN, which focuses on winery over-development. “The impacts of event centers in wineries would be staggering, especially to water and traffic on narrow, rural roads,” he added.
Regionally, Napa County seems the most advanced in reining in its large wine industry. The Wagner family that wants to locate the Dairyman Winery and Event Center near Sebastopol settled for $1 million with Napa County for bottling 20 times more bottles than it was permitted to do.
The president of the Napa Farm Bureau—a fourth generation farmer and grape grower—spoke out against the excesses of the wine industry, as have other former wine executives, at FCN’s May meeting.
As the smaller Napa Valley runs out of water and land, its wine barons want to move to the much larger Sonoma County and to nearby Lake and Mendocino County. They can grow their grapes there and bottle the wine in Napa or Sonoma, which increases their worth.
Long Live the Redwoods!
Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.