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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.

The proposal has been under review by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, ever since.

Artesa produces about 95,000 cases annually, according to the latest state records. It intends to tap the new vineyards for its Sonoma Coast Estate chardonnay and pinot noir labels.

Out of the total 146-acre vineyard area proposed in the project, 116 acres would be planted with grapes, with the remainder in roads, a nine-acre reservoir and a one-acre equipment yard.

Opponents say the vineyards would harm water resources and imperil wildlife, including beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations in the Gualala River watershed.

More than 50 rare and sensitive plant and animal species are known to live in the area, project studies showed. The trees to be cut include 50-to-75-year-old coast redwood and Douglas fir, oaks and Manzanita bushes.

Artesa, like Preservation Ranch, has vowed to lighten its footprint by staying out of streams, using only captured rainwater for irrigation and relying minimally on chemicals for farming. Nearly 60 pages of the 600-page environmental impact report are devoted to measures to lessen impacts on water and air quality, soils, cultural and biological resources, traffic and noise.

But opponents say those efforts, many of which are required by the state, aren't enough.

"It's a question of cumulative impacts. How many digits do you want to lose?" said Chris Poehlmann, an Annapolis resident who heads the non-profit Friends of the Gualala River, which opposes both projects. "These vineyards are biological deserts. It's worse than a clear cut. This is permanent conversion from a natural landscape and it has its consequences."

Also threatened by the Artesa project, some say, are tribal artifacts from former Kashia Pomo sites in the area. Many artifacts are still thought to be buried on the property.

Recent surveys led to a 19-acre reduction in the area proposed for grapes, a move meant to protect archeological and biological resources. Other safeguards would kick in during construction, said Chuck Whatford, an associate state archeologist with CalFire.

"Whatever significant sites are out there are going to be protected," he said.

Opponents have their doubts. They've called on Grupo Codorniu, the Spanish parent company, to abandon the project and sell or otherwise divest itself of the entire property so it can be set aside as a cultural and conservation site.

"Our people were all over these hills," said Violet Parrish Chappell, 80, a Kashia member who lives about 15 miles away on the 42-acre Stewarts Point Rancheria.

The tribe has not taken a stance on the project but members opposed to it "don't want grapes to be put on these areas," Parrish Chappell said. "We want to keep it as is."

A decision on the Artesa project could come from CalFire in the next several months. Opponents said an approval would likely prompt a court challenge.

Artesa representatives would not be interviewed for this story.

Preservation Ranch, meanwhile, expects to complete its draft environmental impact report by the end of the year. Public comment periods and hearings before county boards, including supervisors, would follow.

Napa-based Premier Pacific Vineyards purchased the 19,652-acre property in 2004 for $28.5 million. The former owner, Willits-based timber company Coastal Forestlands, had previously floated a 10,000-acre vineyard plan that included the same property and other land in Mendocino County.

Premier Pacific was created by longtime Napa vintner William Hill, who previously developed and sold William Hill Winery, and Bay Area real estate investment firm owner Richard Wollack. The company develops and manages high-end vineyards, including 26 properties in California, Oregon and Washington.

CalPERS, the state workers' retirement system, has invested $200 million in that vineyard portfolio, including Preservation Ranch.

Premier Pacific also is looking at pinot noir and chardonnay grapes for its proposed vineyards outside of Annapolis, along with Bordeaux varietals. Of the 1,769-acre conversion area, up to 1,200 acres would be planted with grapes, with the remainder taken up by perimeter roads, reservoirs and other uses.

The company expects to spend up to $7 million on studies, including $2 million on the draft environmental impact report. Its application files at county offices stand four feet high.

The proposal is sure to be a key issue in county elections next year. Three supervisorial seats are on the ballot, including the post held by Efren Carrillo, who represents northwestern Sonoma County. Carrillo is set to run for a second term and has said he won't make up his mind on the project until the environmental impact report is completed.

County officials are overseeing review of the proposal under a set of rules developed for timber conversions in 2006 with Preservation Ranch in mind. The project is seen as the first large test of the rules.

Planning officials say they expect a prolonged and spirited debate.

"It's going to be controversial no matter how good a job we do," said David Schiltgen, the lead planner on the project. "Our goal is that the debate be over the issues and not the adequacy of the environmental impact report."

As with Artesa, opponents of Preservation Ranch said that when the time comes for their comments they'll be questioning whether wine grapes represent the best economic and environmental use of remote forestlands.

Additional water demands and erosion from vineyards could be "a potential death sentence for the fish stocks we have left here," said Poehlmann, the Friends of the Gualala River president.

Preservation Ranch representatives say that won't happen on their watch. Plans to plant one million trees and rehabilitate 300 miles of old logging roads are expected to improve fish habitat and water quality in the river, they said. Residential development would also be restricted to about 60 parcels on the property, down from the current potential of 155.

Wine industry insiders, meanwhile, quietly concede that uncertainty exists on the economic point.

Far-flung vineyards cost more to develop and more to run, sources said.

Higher prices for premium grapes can make such bets work. But returns for those grapes have been in the cellar for three years, with a slow rebound starting only about eight months ago, said Glenn Proctor, a grape broker with Ciatti Company in San Rafael.

Any move to plant at this point comes down to an educated guess about returns years down the road, Proctor said.

"You wet your finger and put it up in the air. At some point its either a &‘no' or it's a &‘go,'" he said.

Preservation Ranch officials said they remain confident in their projections. "We wouldn't be doing this if it didn't make economic sense," said Adams, the Premier Pacific director.

Doing nothing with the property, either out of fiscal caution or environmental benevolence, isn't an option, said former county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, an attorney and consultant for Preservation Ranch.

"The land is out there. The future is: someone is going to own it; someone is going to do something with it," Koenigshofer said. "The idea that everybody is going to walk away from it and it's going to be in some abstract condition where it's going to be better, it's not a real-world scenario."

Contact Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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