Forest lands eyed for vineyards

  • Chris Poehlman president of the Friends of the Gualala River, is objecting to a 146 acre timber-to-vineyard conversion, background right, by Artesa Winery's proposed Fairfax Estate on the outskirts of Annapolis, Thursday July 21, 2011. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

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.

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