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Close to Home: Keeping the grape debate in perspective

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Sonoma County’s wine industry has grown from just one part of a diverse agricultural landscape to a dominant force in our lives. It has become important enough that industry volatility can significantly affect the county’s economy.

Vineyard acreage has roughly doubled in the past 20-25 years. I make my living as a financial consultant for the wine business, but I’m concerned about the way wine and associated tourism are changing the face of my town — Healdsburg — and my county, a personal Holy Land for me.

Lately, though, some have cast blanket aspersions on the industry. Sadly, many of the industry’s loudest critics have been peddling in falsehoods and misleading the public. In order to have a useful discussion, we should base it in reality.

No doubt, as with virtually every other human endeavor, vineyards have caused serious environmental harm. Unlike most other industries, however, Sonoma County’s growers are making voluntary and concerted efforts to reduce environmental impacts. Roughly one-third of our vineyard acreage is now certified sustainable by a third party. Sonoma County Winegrowers’ ambitious and laudable goal is 100 percent countywide, certified, vineyard sustainability. How does this reconcile with accusations that grape growers are “replacing apple orchards with industrial vineyards, while continuing to use poisonous pesticides” and “killing all organisms”? It doesn’t.

I requested pesticide use reports for a sample of vineyards and apple orchards. Organic apples and organic grapes tend to be sprayed with 75-85 applications of mostly mild chemicals, like oils and minerals. Conventional vineyards are similar, but with a few sprays of more toxic, but still relatively mild chemicals mixed in.

Conventional apple orchards, on the other hand, apply roughly 10 sprays, but use highly toxic chemicals such as Imidan, Danitol and chlorpyrifos. Though vineyard plantings have crowded out many apple orchards, an important part of our county’s heritage, this has significantly reduced the application of the most dangerous toxins near our homes.

Recently, a claim was made in this newspaper that Sonoma County wine is dominated by frightening conglomerates including Altria, Foster’s and Brown-Forman. This is quite the fib. Nearly all Altria’s wine assets are in Washington and Oregon. As far as I know, its owns only one vineyard in the county, which is leased to Kendall Jackson. Brown-Forman’s only wine asset is Sonoma-Cutrer. Foster’s owns no wine assets at all.

Though our county’s wine industry does include some heavyweights, such as Gallo and Jackson Family, it is a diverse industry characterized by small businesses. With 255,635 tons of grapes grown in 2015 and 1,099 winegrower permits, we can assume an average winery production of less than 12,000 cases annually. Some 40 percent of our vineyards are smaller than 20 acres, and only 20 percent are more than 100 acres. Of the county’s top 25 employers, only one, Korbel, is a winery. Almost all others are dwarfed in size by two beloved and highly successful local companies, Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Amy’s Kitchen.

The wine industry does dominate our agriculture industry, producing more than 70 percent of our agricultural sales. On the other hand, vineyards occupy only 13 percent of the county’s agricultural land. Yes, in some areas of the county we have a grape-based monoculture, but for every acre of grapes, Sonoma County boasts almost seven acres of pastureland or other crops.

How do these facts reconcile with the claim that our industry is akin to Big Oil? They don’t. So let’s put the false narratives aside. Mendacious hyperboles might make for great opinion articles, but they don’t make for great policy debates. They don’t make for great neighbors, and they won’t make for a great county to call home.

Gabriel Froymovich, a resident of Healdsburg, is founder of Vineyard Financial Associates.

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