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.