At one time grape growers planted largely according to preference and budget, but nowadays, as acreage expands, some new vineyards face regulatory and public relations challenges, concerns far beyond weather, bugs, and grape prices.

California grapes of all types made up an estimated 955,000 acres, 128,000 non-bearing, in 2000, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service.

Another glance at the CASS grape acreage report for 2000 reveals wine varieties at 403,000 acres bearing, plus more than 77,000 non-bearing. Wine variety bearing acreage has expanded 37 percent from the 294,000 acres of 1991.

As vineyard acreage rose and so-called “prime” land became scarce in recent years, new plantings crept up hillsides and away from traditional, relatively flat or modestly sloped parcels.

Typically, the sites were cleared of trees and other native vegetation before the vines were planted, and some were fenced to protect the young vines from deer. These changes ignited environmental groups and spawned regulations in some counties.

Examples of local regulations are prohibition of vineyards on slopes greater than 50 percent (or the where elevation rises one foot for every two horizontal feet), mandatory erosion control plans on slopes greater than 10 percent, submission of plans before removing oak trees, regulated well-drilling, and prohibition of plantings within 50 feet of streams.

Defines issues

A panel of speakers representing interests centering on the subject of hillside vineyards recently met at Rohnert Park to exchange experiences and points of view in a land-use program by the Foundation for American Communications. While there was no intention to reach conclusions, the exchange did define major issues.

The setting was central to Sonoma County, which in 2000 had some 52,000 acres of wine grapes, of which 12,500 acres, or nearly one-fourth, were nonbearing.

Offering an environmental stance was Fred Euphrat, president of Forest, Soil and Water, Inc. at Healdsburg. A forester and hydrologist who works in erosion-control planning, he also hosts a local radio talk show on environmental concerns.

“People are afraid of vineyardization,” Euphrat asserted. That fear is associated with use of chemicals, change of wildlife habitat, and visual change of the landscape.

Euphrat said he sees “a real increase of grapes on marginal land” and many parcels are marginal in terms of slope, pattern, access, climate, quality of soil, and cost. But, he added, vineyard development involves risk and is being done by speculators.

He complained of irresponsible developments in his community such as deer fences directly on property lines, not along vineyard edges, and thus restricting movement of the animals.

He cited other environmental offenses of logging off all trees, removal of groundcovers of poison oak and blackberries, and even rerouting of streams.

“We don't hear much about the ‘good-guy’ vineyards,” he said, adding that extremely competent wineries are indeed practicing good stewardship of the environment with their vineyard expansion.

“There's a lot of action on the speculative fringe, where as much new grape acreage is going in as anywhere else.”

What happens, he asked, if the price of wine grapes falls? “Sometimes prices fall: take tulips long ago in Holland, petroleum in the 1960s, and the NASDAQ this year.”

If prices do fall, he added, the speculative bubble could burst, causing developers to abandon their vineyards and the altered landscape.

Alberto Zamora, vineyard manager for the 600-acre Simi Winery headquartered at Healdsburg, said the demand for new vineyards is a response to growing demand for ultra-premium grapes.

A veteran of farming in the region for 28 years, Zamora said he has seen many changes in farming practices, including a greater attention to the environment in recent times.

In keeping with concerns such as ordinances on hillside vineyards and erosion control plans, he said his company's policy is to farm with the least possible impact on the environment.

Cover crops

“We do several things to make sure we are sustainable, such as planting of cover crops to reduce erosion of silt into nearby streams.”

Although in the past varieties and soil types were not always suitably matched, Zamora said, “Ideally we want rocky soils to produce the best reds, along with rootstocks matching the soil type. This follows with selection of well-drained soils for vineyards.”

He noted that responsible vineyard operators on the North Coast have taken measures to provide corridors through vineyards for deer and to provide for conservation of fish habitat.

Adina Merenlender, a conservation biologist with the University of California at Hopland, said, “My program is focused on resources at risk. Our goal is to map natural and agricultural resources and forecast the rate of loss of those resources due, in particular, to land-use change.”

She said she performs applied research and extends the results to those who make land-use decisions and are in need of advice.

The information can be applied to various regulatory and planning documents. A key tool in her work is a global information system, which allows her to integrate maps of an area with data such the number of people who live on a particular soil type.

The mapping also allows scientists project potential scenarios of land uses, learn where to expect changes, and hopefully resolve conflicts beforehand.

“We have established a trend showing vineyards are tending to move upslope and to higher elevations.” But she added her greater interest professionally is the potential loss of both wildlife habitat — and future development — of areas mismanaged.

Habitat, she said is like a carpet. If it is cut up into small pieces, it looses both its functionality and its beauty.

Habitat fragmentation

“That's exactly what happens to forest communities when they are fragmented” and a cascading effect of loss occurs when the habitat is fragmented, she noted. The effect on a forest can also amount to an “unraveling” when plants or animals are changed.

Where a vineyard development might split a large forest habitat, she said, thought could be given, for instance, to preserving a corridor between the two parts to allow animals to move and prevent fragmentation.

Dan Gira, deputy director of planning and development for Santa Barbara County, said much of the prime farmland in his county has been paved over, but vineyard development continues.

Nearly one-third, or 5,000 acres, of the county's 15,800 acres of wine grapes were non-bearing in 2000.

Agriculture, in response to urban pressures, has shifted to land less-suited, spent more to develop, and challenged the environment, he said.

Prior to the mid-1990s, permits were not required in the county for most farmland development, but heated debate on an oak tree ordinance and voluntary guidelines for habitat protection went all the way to the ballot box.

Although both measures failed in an election, sharp contention between farm and city residents lingered as the issues returned to the supervisors for resolution.

The board directed the planning department to come up with an ordinance dealing with oak tree removal and another for protection of rural resources, particularly creeks, wetlands, and undefined, “sensitive species.”

Since 1992, the county ag lands have expanded 80,000 acres to a total of 119,000 cultivated acres. Even so, according to Gira, ag interests consider themselves “under all-out assault” because of the talk of regulation.

The county's comprehensive plan, he said, calls for balance with protection of both agriculture and the environment.

“But balance is in the eye of the beholder, and to agriculture, it means don't do anything. To the environmentalists, it would be a draconian ordinance that would treat agriculture similar to urban developers, or regulate everything.”

Despite skepticism of the public, and the planning department itself, Gira said, agricultural interests are holding out for voluntary regulation.

But something must be done, and soon, he added. For example, the valley oak species is approaching extinction, and unless some action is taken locally, it is likely federal authorities will eventually step in, an action neither side wants.

Gira sees some promise in an advisory committee composed equally of biologists and farmers cooperating to forge a rural resource protection ordinance.

“First there should be a regulatory backstop, setting the boundaries of the agreement and protecting the most crucial resources. Then our farmers should be able to work with rural resource conservation districts and others.”

In short, growers meeting certain voluntary conservation management plans would not have to go through a regulatory process.

His department, Gira said, has suggested the county might consider establishing a program, bankrolled by the general fund and matching grants, to assist farmers with conservation management in exchange for expansion in acreage.

William Fulton, an urban planner from Ventura and moderator for the panel, said the future of land use in California will become more defined between rural and urban factions.

However, he added, the use of land within each category also will become more critical, and a key to successful management will be greater understanding of the different ways land can be conserved and of the conflicts between them.

e-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com