ANNAPOLIS — Beyond the dusty homesteads and small fruit orchards that ring this isolated town stand vast forested hillsides that long have been the domain of timber companies.
But as logging has waned, the sprawling northwest Sonoma County landscape of second-growth redwood and fir is being eyed for another crop: premium grapes for top-dollar wines.
For grape growers, a move into this rugged terrain could be their boldest yet in the county.
For years, they have pushed into ever more remote corners of the North Coast in search of open land. Vineyard expansion over the past two decades has more than doubled the bearing acreage for wine grapes in Sonoma County to nearly 57,000, and pushed the regional tally — including Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties — up by about 75 percent, to more than 111,000 acres.
At each step, plans for new vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms have prompted fights with neighbors and critics who've sought to turn back the spread of Wine Country.
Now, two controversial proposals to clear more than 1,900 acres of trees for vineyards outside of Annapolis have turned this normally quiet part of the coast range into the latest battleground over the march of grapes into untilled country.
The standoff features two companies determined to farm a portion of their forestland, a move they say will be both profitable and light on the environment.
The alternative, one company argues, is development that clutters the hills with housing.
"You have to look at conservation in the bigger picture," said Tom Adams, land-use director for Premier Pacific Vineyards, which wants to clear up to 1,769 acres for vineyards on nearly 20,000 acres it owns north and east of Annapolis. The project, known as Preservation Ranch, would permanently set aside 15,000 acres for timber operations, dedicate 2,700 acres for a private wildlife preserve and donate 220 acres for a public park expansion.
"We think we've created a good balance," Adams said.
Forestry officials are calling it the largest "timberland conversion" of its kind in modern state history.
The smaller project, by Napa-based Artesa Vineyards and Winery — owned by the Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu — would clear 146 acres for vineyards on a 324-acre property less than a mile east of Annapolis.
Unlike Preservation Ranch, which falls under a county-led review process, Artesa's project predates a set of 2006 county rules for timber conversions and is subject only to state approval.
It also would break records, nearly doubling the size of any timberland conversion in Sonoma County in at least the past decade. The state has approved 11 conversions for vineyards, housing and other purposes in the county since 2000, the largest at 88 acres.
Some residents and others opposed to the projects say the vineyards would be an economic boondoggle bound to harm the environment. They point to a three-year skid in high-end wine and grape sales and question the push for vineyards on semi-wild land.
"The projects' premise — having to clear redwoods to create premium wines — right now, it's simply not credible," said Peter Baye, a former federal biologist and Annapolis resident who opposes the projects.
Both plans have been around in some form for years.
Artesa's project is closer to a permit decision. The company bought the property off Annapolis Road in 1999 for $1.7 million. It first proposed a smaller conversion project in 2001 before withdrawing the plans in 2005. It then increased the vineyard acreage and resubmitted the project in 2009.