Environmentalists are hailing a court ruling this week that deals a significant setback to a hotly disputed vineyard project in northwestern Sonoma County.
If it stands, the decision could serve as a bulwark against the push of vineyards into a mostly untilled swath of the region's coast range, blocking grape growers searching for cooler ground for their crops in the advance of climate change.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought last year by three groups challenging state approval of plans by Artesa Vineyards and Winery of Napa, owned by the Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu.
It wants to clear 154 acres of second- and third-growth redwood and fir trees and former orchard land near Annapolis to grow premium chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
The project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade as one of several proposals to consider remote North Coast forestland for wine grapes.
Opponents, including environmentalists and several Indian tribes, have objected to the plans, which they say would fragment the largely undeveloped landscape and harm water resources and wildlife. Pomo tribes also fear it could disturb sites once used by their ancestors.
In his final ruling this week, Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum rejected key parts of the project's environmental review, siding with most of the claims brought by the environmental groups in their lawsuit.
Representatives for those groups said the court decision lends new strength to their main contention that North Coast forests, and even the previously logged Artesa property, should not serve as the next frontier for the expansion of the region's dominant wine industry.
"The highest and best use of coastal forests is to remain in their natural condition so they can protect our coastal rivers, support fish and wildlife and combat climate change by sequestering carbon," Victoria Brandon, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Redwood Chapter, said in a statement.
An Artesa spokesman, meanwhile, criticized the decision Friday and slammed the project's opponents, calling them "obstructionists" opposed to farming on a parcel once partly dedicated to grazing and growing apples.
"We are not giving up," said Sam Singer, the San Francisco-based spokesman hired by Artesa. He said the company was weighing its options, including an appeal or possibly another round of work on the environmental report.
The other two groups behind the lawsuit are the locally based Friends of the Gualala River and the Center for Biological Diversity, headquartered in Arizona.
Artesa's vineyard proposal sits in the heart of a hilly range dotted with smaller tracts of wine grapes and orchards. Most of the region was dedicated to commercial timber operations up until recent decades.
While those activities have left scars and imperiled the region's once bountiful salmon and steelhead runs, if left alone the landscape could bounce back, vineyard opponents claim. They say more wine grapes would make for a permanent transformation for the worse.
Local protests staking that claim have sought to put wine brands in an unflattering spotlight in recent years. A demonstration last year outside the Sonoma County government administration center partly targeted the Artesa project. It featured a man costumed as an 8-foot-tall bottle of "Pinot Egrigio" labeled "Chainsaw Wine."
"This is a highly unpopular thing with the general public," said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River. The Annapolis-based group has fought against a number of vineyard conversions proposed in the area in recent years.
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