Some wine leaders pleased with pending demise of forest-to-vineyard project

  • The Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River reflects a portion of the newly acquired open space of Preservation Ranch, Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013, on the east end of the property. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Sonoma County wine industry representatives and grape growers are voicing some relief over news this week of the tentative conservation deal that would shield nearly 20,000 acres in northwestern Sonoma County from a disputed forest-to-vineyard conversion project.

The large proposal called for clearing almost 1,800 acres of former commercial timberland to grow premium pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. Industry officials said it could have flooded the market, crowding out small-scale area growers.

It also would have drawn the local industry further into a pitched land-use battle and widening national debate over the reach of vineyards into remote North Coast forests.

"That would have been a battle that we didn't invite or initiate, and that we didn't want to be involved in but we would have been involved in," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

The purchase agreement, confirmed by conservation officials on Tuesday, is likely to cool that fight by curtailing the most controversial elements of the so-called Preservation Ranch proposal. That project has been controlled for years by CalPERS, the giant state employee pension fund.

Vineyard plans for the sprawling property outside of Annapolis would be eliminated, as would other development potential. The ranch spans a rugged swath of the coastal range, including second- and third-growth redwood and fir forest, oak woodlands and salmon and steelhead streams.

The $24.5 million deal involves two private conservation groups and two public agencies and is set to be complete by the end of May. It was hailed this week by environmentalists and others opposed to forest conversions for vineyards.

Some grape growers and wine industry representatives also chimed in with support. The project's environmental risks — it was called the largest forest conversion for agriculture in modern state history — and the resulting blowback for vintners and growers were serious issues, they said.

"All it takes is one mistake and the entire industry gets a black eye," said Duff Bevill, founder of Bevill Vineyard Management. "You want to support agriculture, but this was a tough one. The good news is that it has resolved itself."

Industry and project critics have pointed especially to impacts on water resources and wildlife. Preservation Ranch officials sought to downplay those concerns with assurances that the project would improve stream and forest health.

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