Wednesday’s food section of the New York Times presented a stunning photograph: the wooded hills of northern Sonoma County. But Eric Asimov’s story, titled “Making Wine in a Hostile Climate on Sonoma’s Coast,” wasn’t about those woods, it was about the acres of vineyards that would displace those woods.
And the “hostile climate” wasn’t so much the delicate ecosystem that would be (or has been) destroyed by those vineyards. The “common sense” that Asimov claims these winegrowers are disobeying referred to the fog, rain, and isolation of this remote area.
It was a surprisingly myopic story. The wineries mentioned in the story — cultish small producers like Flowers and Peter Michael, and huge operations like Kendall-Jackson — have clearcut hundreds of acres and lopped off entire hilltops in order to tame the ridges inland from the coast in Cazadero and Annapolis and plant their highly regarded pinot noirs.
Far be it from me to begrudge anyone their wine. But responsible reporting requires that the story be fully told. When Asimov wrote “[w]hile the soils and climates offer the prospect for greatness, they also hold the potential for disaster,” I assumed he meant environmental disaster. But he goes on to explain that “disaster” refers to the growers’ low yield.
And the specter of pesky regulations are brushed off summarily. Mike Benziger, general partner of Benziger Family Winery, explains that they only planted 10 of their 24 acres because of the high price — due “partly to regulatory issues that make it difficult to plant a new vineyard without lawyers and hearings, and partly to the region’s seclusion… ,” says Asimov.
Area residents, some of whom have been vocal in their opposition to the pillaging of the land, are referred to disdainfully as kooky hermit types: “Adding to the challenge is opposition from longtime residents, who feel that vineyards and winemakers threaten the distance they have tried so hard to put between themselves and society.”
Sonoma County is raging a heated battle over woodland conversion. A compromise measure that would require landowners to plant two acres of trees for every one acre cut down is currently being decided. The Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club calls the two-for-one deal unrooted in science — they would rather prohibit conversions altogether.
This article describes some of the dangers inherent in the pursuit of the perfect grape.
Asimov’s piece calls regulations like these “a serious obstacle to winemakers.” Which, of course, they are — for a reason. The other side of the story deserved a little more attention.