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Close to Home: When greens and growers were allies

It’s no surprise that our prolonged drought gets some folks riled up at our wine industry. I have no dog in this hunt, having retired from the Sonoma County wine world a few years ago. But I do happen to know something about local vineyards and wineries, after a 40 year run growing grapes and making wine here.

Back in the late 1970s, when Sonoma County was still largely agricultural, a collision was developing between vineyards and houses. The burgeoning wine industry was gaining international acclaim and the county’s population was multiplying. Around that time, it occurred to several of my wine-growing pals that we needed to join forces with the environmental community to devise a plan that would ensure the lands between Petaluma and Geyserville and Sonoma and Sebastopol didn’t sprawl out unregulated into a cheek to jowl conurbation like the Los Angeles Basin or the Santa Clara Valley.

By the mid-1980s, a general plan revision was being hammered out over months of horse trading and public hearings. Farmers and environmentalists eventually ended up with a planning document that stipulated that agricultural lands could and should serve as buffers between our cities and towns, thereby reinforcing urban boundaries.

Needless to say, this was anathema to developers, who were only too keen to expand the fringes of our towns and cities into large lot rural residential housing. Instead we ended up with what is today a roughly equal amount of acreage in city-centered growth and vineyards. This would not have happened without the general plan revision.

Since the ‘70s, vineyards have become far better stewards of our county’s resources: organic farming, minimal irrigation, designated game trails, less wasteful tillage, ground covers, prohibited planting on steep slopes and so on. Is the wine business without problems? No. Nothing is. Personally, I support measures to ensure that wineries in vineyards are devoted to wine production rather than entertainment. Toward this end, many wineries are now situated not in ag-designated lands but inside city limits, where resource efficiency and proximity to customers are maximized. Ditto for tasting rooms.

Acre for acre, people pollute and exploit resources far more intensively than do vineyards. So folks concerned that the wine industry is unduly taking resources might want to catch their collective breath and consider what our county resources would look like today if housing had been allowed to expand across ag lands.

Patrick Campbell is the former owner of Laurel Glen Winery. He lives in Bloomfield.

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