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In developing his eight-acre Forestville property for vineyards, winemaker Mac McDonald is being careful to preserve the land's natural beauty while converting five acres of grassland to wine grapes.

McDonald and his family are preserving tall trees and thick vegetation along a stream that meanders along the back border of the property, an area rich with wildlife.

"The trees, coyotes and foxes were here long before I came on the scene, and they are going to stay here," said McDonald, 63, who with wife Lil is the owner of Vision Cellars. "I want to keep this place as natural as we can. This land is our family's legacy."

Agricultural officials monitoring grape planting in Sonoma County say McDonald exemplifies a changing attitude about converting land to vineyards. Increasingly, the mind-set is to work with nature, rather than conquering it by bulldozing all the trees and leveling the natural contours.

"There is greater awareness of environmental concerns today. Growers are not forcing vineyards on property, they are letting the sites dictate how and where the vines are planted on the property," said Gail Davis, coordinator of the Sonoma County Vineyard Erosion and Control Ordinance, which is administered by the Agricultural Commissioner's office.

Growers, she said, are more likely to leave large portions in woodlands than they did in the past. There's a tendency to preserve the natural swales in the land, creating safe harbors for wildlife and beneficial insects.

"There's been a huge change in vineyard planting," Davis said. "Everything is much more scientific and technical than it used to be."

The vineyard ordinance was adopted six years ago by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors following more than two years of often contentious debate.

It was born of the public concern over the unprecedented planting boom in the 1990s, when the county's vineyard acreage nearly doubled.

Critics coined the term "industrial vineyards" to describe the regimented rows of steel-staked vineyards that large wine companies planted fence-to-fence on land once dotted with oak trees, apple orchards and cattle ranches.

The dramatic shift in the county's landscape alarmed rural residents and environmentalists who demanded regulatory controls on vineyard expansion.

Industry steps up

Environmentalist Lynn Hamilton, founder and administrator of the Town Hall Coalition, a grass-roots group formed in 1999 to address vineyard expansion, credits the viticultural industry for making great strides in sustainability over the past five years. But she said the vineyard ordinance must be strengthened so some land including forests is totally off-limits to grapes. She also wants more regulations on the deep wells that are drilled to irrigate vineyards, which she says affect surrounding property owners in rural areas.

"The majority of vineyards are environmentally oriented and sustainable, but there's nothing to stop the bad actors who are using practices that are not appropriate," said Hamilton, the former mayor of Sebastopol.

Between 1990 and 2000 there were 23,200 acres of vineyards planted, bringing the county's total acreage to 56,000 in 2001. In the planting frenzy, vineyards were planted on erosion-prone hillsides, and ancient oaks were cut down to make way for chardonnay and cabernet.

That has changed as growers and wineries respond to public sentiment and the market.

Grape planting has slowed dramatically in the past four years, primarily because of market conditions that have left grape varietals such as merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon in oversupply.

There were 2,700 acres of new vineyards planted in 2000. Last year, 800 acres were planted, and this year 500 acres are under development. Plantings in the past five years have brought the county's total vineyards to 64,000 acres.

"There are better vineyards being planted today than what was happening before the vineyard ordinance. The ordinance has created a process that puts more thought and effort into vineyard design," said Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association.

Abandoning pesticides

Davis said many of those planting new vineyards are adopting organic or biodynamic farming methods, giving up toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The desire to kick chemicals is born not only out of a concern for the environment but, for many, the belief that biological farming methods better capture the unique flavor of the land. The quest is for quality wine.

"They are farming for better flavors in the grapes, which gives them a marketing edge in selling their grapes or wine," Davis said. She points to the vineyards at the Medlock Ames winery off Chalk Hill Road in Healdsburg as an extraordinary example of environmental sustainability.

Kelly Mulville, vineyard manager at Medlock Ames, uses sheep rather than herbicides to control the vegetation in the organically farmed vineyards. Geese and cattle will be enlisted as foragers in the future.

Grapes are planted on only 56 acres of the 320-acre ranch, leaving much of the land in its original, wooded state. There are wildlife corridors so deer, coyotes and other critters can cross the land.

"We take a truly holistic approach in combining the wild with the domestic," Mulville said. "We consider all of the land an ecosystem. If the whole property isn't healthy, we can't have healthy vineyards."

To that end, Mulville plans to use Belgian draft horses, instead of tractors, to farm the estate's vineyards.

"The goal is to eliminate or minimize the use of off-farm inputs like fossil fuel and to have a biological, self-contained farming system," Mulville said.

Sustainable approach

While the Medlock Ames model goes beyond what most vineyards are doing in Sonoma County, the wine industry generally is embracing a more sustainable approach.

Sonoma County and other wine growing regions in California realize the industry's survival depends on being good neighbors and responsible stewards of the land.

In 2002, the wine industry adopted the "Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices," which is based on environmental protection, economic viability and social equity for wine industry workers. The goal is to make California the world leader in sustainable grape growing and winemaking by 2009.

Even though setting aside land for nature costs money and reduces income, it's part of the financial trade-off that most growers make to farm in Sonoma County.

Frey said progress is being made to ensure that vineyards and wineries exist harmoniously with people both in and outside the wine industry.

The high cost of establishing vineyards, which can range from $25,000 to $50,000 an acre, not including the price of land, make wine grapes a venture for the truly serious or seriously wealthy.

"The costs have gone up so much a lot of people do a lot of serious calculating before planting vineyards," said Davis.

You can reach Staff Writer Tim Tesconi at 521-5289 or ttesconi@pressdemocrat.com.