At the top of the grape-growing pyramid, where Napa vintners balance on the shoulders of the almost-as-lucky folk from neighboring Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the world is as insular as the circus. The public is invited to jazz concerts, to charity auctions, to celebrity tastings. The public is not invited backstage into the reality of good guys and bad guys and wildly divergent fortunes — North Coast forests bulldozed for pinot noir, small Central Valley vineyards lost to low grape prices. Even self-described watershed activist Chris Malan, who has been labeled an eco-terrorist by some of her Napa neighbors, asked worriedly: “You’re not going to name names, are you?”
Texas-born Lee Hudson is one of the good guys. His land — 1,800 acres on the Carneros and Huichica creeks west of Napa — has just 180 acres in grapes — a mix of 13 varieties sold to 19 different wineries. Though he’s feeling what he calls “tremendous downward pressure” on prices, Hudson Vineyards remains profitable, no small feat among growers of grapes or nearly anything else in today’s farm economy. “We’re a niche business,” Hudson said. “We’re dealing with the very top end.”
Profitability has given Hudson and vineyard manager Jason Kesner the opportunity to move far along the road of what is often called integrated pest management or sustainable practices, the best of so-called conventional farming. Hudson himself resists all such labels: “There’s good farming and there’s bad farming. Good is good, and bad is bad.” But he’s proud of what he’s accomplished: major reductions in chemical inputs over the past decade or so, significant improvements in the health of the creeks on his property, a resurgence of oak woodlands on his land, and even a manmade wetland that has proved excellent bird habitat — I saw red-winged blackbirds, two mallard families, and some Canada geese and their goslings rooting among the reeds. “What we try to do here is export only our grapes, not our byproducts,” he said.
Like others pushing the bounds of conventional agriculture, he’s no idealist, but he knows his land well. One moment, he’s describing agriculture as “an industrial activity,” and a bit later, he’s proudly pushing aside 18-inch–tall exotic grasses to point out a tiny oak seedling coming up in the shade of its 200-year-old parents, something that could never happen back when this part of his ranch was owned by a cattle operation. “The creek, when I bought this property, was a disaster,” he said. “You could not find a steelhead in this creek, and now you can go down and see hundreds of them.”
As Hudson led me past a series of wetland ponds he’d created, it was hard to imagine that only 60 or 70 miles to the northwest, ridgetops were being sheared off to plant pinot noir. The trouble with grape-growing in California is money: Some wealthy, small-time vanity growers in the favored counties (with Lake about to join them) are willing to spend millions of dollars for the romance of vineyards that can never recoup the initial investment. At the same time, in the Central Valley, where agriculture is serious business, growers are tearing out thousands of acres of wine grapes. Location counts: Central Valley farmers received as little as $136 for a ton of grapes compared to almost $3,000 in Napa.
Three thousand dollars an acre is quite an enticement, but there’s no room on the valley floors and many of the trendiest varietals grow best on steep slopes. That has put forested hillsides in the sights of vineyard developers large and small, all eager to permanently clear land for grapes.
Hobby farmers are part of the problem. “One ten-acre vineyard is not going to create a disaster, but 200 ten-acre hobby vineyards will,” says Chris Malan. “Each project degrades the water quality and takes away wildlife habitat.” This spring Napa County officials were considering 120 applications to put in new hillside vineyards. Older operations on the valley floor are beginning to see the problems of development in the hills: as slopes are “recontoured” for grapes and drip systems, rain no longer percolates into the bare soil. Instead, it runs off in torrents, to flood the Napa River and carry away priceless valley soil.
The economic downturn doesn’t seem to be fazing large operations like Guenoc Winery, which has just proposed to put in an unprecedented 6,480 acres of irrigated vineyards on a broad swath of oak woodland and chaparral on the border of Lake and Napa counties. The project would increase the vineyard’s reservoir capacity by over 300 million gallons, diverted from Putah Creek, which feeds Lake Berryessa, a source of drinking water for Solano County. Because of potential impacts on fish and the loss of oak and chaparral habitat, the State Water Resources Control Board has called for a full environmental impact report, to be submitted by the end of the year. Malan sees impacts beyond the immediate clearing of land. “In all these vineyards, the key is water,” says Malan. “You have got to have water, because they don’t believe in dry farming anymore. If they get the water permit, then you bring in the roads, then you bring in the development, then PG&E and the rest of it. You’re one step away from houses.”
Further west, environmental activists like Chris Poehlmann are challenging hobbyists and industrial growers moving into coastal forests where timber companies are the traditional villains. Poehlmann lives on eight acres in Annapolis, a small North Coast town just south of Gualala. Next to him, a couple from Las Vegas, a lawyer and an optometrist, are putting in up to 30 acres of pinot noir on a 62-acre property that Poehlmann calls a “vanity project.” Nearby, a Spanish company called Codornieu, owner of the Artesa winery, wants to put in 105 acres of pinot noir, the largest of eight pending projects covering almost 400 acres of Sonoma County timberland.
For Poehlmann, a designer of museum exhibits and an activist with the Coastal Forest Alliance, vineyards are the death knell of the coastal coniferous forests. “It’s a classic battle of trying to save what’s left,” he said. “These forests are being hammered with unsustainable logging practices as it is. The wine industry is permanently deforesting these acres, which is actually the worst thing that could happen.” In Sonoma, according to plant ecologist Peter Baye, who lives near Annapolis, new winery development is happening on “Goldridge” soils, common to flat-topped ridges.
All along the North Coast, vineyard developers bulldoze land in areas that get 60 inches or more of rain a year. As long as projects are proposed, many will be approved by regulators. Jill Butler, a staff forester with the California Department of Forestry, explained that her department has demanded full environmental impact analyses on only two projects, and both were withdrawn by the developers. In all other cases, the CDF issued what’s known as a negative declaration — which certifies that a project and its mitigations will have no significant impact on the environment. I asked her if the CDF, which must approve conversions of over three acres on lands with commercial timber species, would ever deny a project outright. No. “Our department has to balance protecting the environment, which is our responsibility, with allowing individual landowners to exercise private property rights.”
Poehlmann and others, including Baye and other scientists who have submitted public comment on the Codornieu plan, are most concerned about the cumulative impacts of many small projects that clear forests and put in fences that block wildlife corridors. “I’ve been wanting to stand up at one of these public meetings and start tearing bits off the edges of a piece of paper. At what point does it cease to be a piece of paper?” Poehlmann asks.
Groups like Poehlmann’s Coastal Forest Alliance and the Sonoma chapter of the Sierra Club are pushing to get restrictions on vineyard conversions into the county’s 20-year plan. The most far-reaching proposal, endorsed by the county’s citizen advisory commission in June, would protect nearly 200,000 acres of timberland from conversion to non-timber uses. That option awaits consideration by the county supervisors.
While Poehlmann and others battle new grapes going in on the North Coast, grape growers in the Central Valley are fighting to stay in the business. Many are losing. Down in Madera County, Stephen Schafer, chairman of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, is a long way from both Hudson Vineyards and the North Coast pinot noir projects — geographically and economically. Schafer’s grandfather, who emigrated from Russia, grew Thompson seedless grapes for the table, for raisins, and for blended wines. His father did the same, and now he and his family farm 1,400 acres of almonds, and raisin, wine, and table grapes outside the town of Madera.
He’s pulling out 120 acres of Thompson seedless this year. “I’m planting more almond trees on some of the land. Some of it I replanted to more desirable varieties of grapes [like syrah],” he said. Schafer is just one of many Central Valley farmers pulling out grapes. Wine broker and industry analyst Barry Bedwell predicts that 40,000 acres are coming out this season statewide, while others put the number as high as 70,000 acres. In addition to almonds, some farmers are putting in alfalfa to feed California’s enormous dairy industry (the largest single agricultural sector in the state), and some are going back to cotton, one of few federally subsidized crops grown in California.
But in Schafer’s neighborhood, a lot of small-time growers, people in their sixties and seventies working on 20 to 40 acres, are simply selling their land for subdivisions. “They just threw in the towel and sold their land to someone whose intention was to develop [it],” he said.
To Schafer, that’s a truth of today’s farm economy. “You know that saying, ‘Inside every farmer, there’s a little developer waiting to get out.’ The only chance they have of retirement is selling their land for more than it’s worth as farmland.”
Once those small growers sell out, Schafer predicts a move toward bigger farms and bigger owners, especially for raisin grapes. His one hope lies with innovative new statewide sustainability standards developed by the California Association of Winegrowers. The 490-page code covers wine “from ground to glass,” according to the Winegrowers’ president Karen Ross, including water use, pesticides, green business practices, and employee relations.
The standards are in part an effort to improve the quality of grapes, and in part a move to raise the public profile of farmers — taking a page from the organic movement, so that buyers and consumers will shop for wines made by farmers working sustainably. Schafer hopes that the program, for now simply a self-assessment, will build enough credibility to spawn a rating system for wine labels. “So often, the farmer just ends up being this obscure person that nobody identifies with. Consumers have to know who we are.”
It remains to be seen how the state sustainability program will change things on the ground. The stakes are high, considering that wine grapes cover over half a million acres in California. According to the Pesticide Action Network, grapes of all types in 1998 accounted for some 34 million pounds of pesticide use. And, though the overwhelming majority of those pesticides are not on the state’s “Bad Actor” list, grapes still accounted for the highest number of reported worker poisonings between 1997 and 2000.
To activist Chris Malan, the jury is still out on whether voluntary farmer sustainability standards will be more than just marketing. “That chapter hasn’t been written yet. You have to give up something,” she says. “There are people genuinely concerned in the farming industry who want to do something, but they haven’t figured out what to do. They don’t like what the environmentalists have proposed, but they themselves haven’t come up with something to protect the trees, the water, the fish. How long do you keep talking about these things? Until they’re gone?” To farmers like Lee Hudson, a profitable crop like premium wine grapes may be the only place where farmers can afford to sacrifice part of their profits for environmental progress. Few farmers could afford to invest as he has in stream restoration and careful farming. “How can they be stewards of the land when they can’t even be stewards to their own pocketbooks, to their own families?” he asks. In the long term, Hudson would like to see federal farm subsidies, now bolstering commodities like corn and soy, go toward farmers’ conservation efforts.
The environmental credibility of vineyardists — good and bad — may ride on the fight over the hillsides of the North Coast. Poehlmann said his Coastal Forest Alliance is looking to get food pioneers like Alice Waters to bring the same conscience to the wine list that they bring to the table. Their first target for boycott would be Artesa, the label owned by Codornieu, but most of the vines in his area are so new that they won’t be producing grapes for two or three years. Poehlmann hopes that campaigning among restaurants and consumers would “put some pressure on end users.”
Ultimately, it may come down to naming names — and to redefining what kinds of environmental degradation trump the rights of private property owners.

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