Massive vineyards planned near Annapolis
By Andrea Granahan / West County Correspondent
The people who live in the little settlement of Annapolis near the Sonoma and Mendocino county border feel under attack by grapes these days.
Two major vineyard corporations – Codorniu from Spain and Premier Pacific Vineyards, based in Napa – want to plant vineyards in the area, the second one backed by a $200 million investment from CalPERS, the state workers’ pension group essentially funded by tax dollars.
The Spanish corporation is further along in its efforts to convert 146 acres of timberland into vineyards for its Artesa wine label. It avoided county involvement and went directly to the state to file its draft environmental impact report (EIR). That draft collected a lot of objections, including the charge that it destroys sacred Kashia Pomo grounds and could put at risk a sacred tree.
The corporation intends to plant pinot noir grapes, a plan instigated during the pinot noir craze created by the movie “Sideways.” Since then, the price of those grapes has plummeted, prompting a Kashia spokesman and 20 groups — environmental and community based — to join with Friends of the Gualala River in an effort to contest the venture.
In a letter to the Spanish owners, they point out the economic challenges the company will face in its effort to produce a boutique wine. They have not yet received a reply.
The Cordiniu firm owns what has been described as the world’s largest vineyard, 4,000 acres in Spain.
Opponents describe the second project as a potential environmental disaster. Proponents call it an environmentally sensitive and wise use of land. Both sides agree on one thing – it is a massive undertaking.
“It is the largest timber conversion the state has ever had to deal with,” said former Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly.
Reilly helped pass an ordinance that gives Sonoma County approval rights over turning timberlands into agricultural projects, thus taking charge of the project’s EIR process, a process the Spanish company avoided.
Sonoma County has issued a 200-page “initial study” to determine what the draft EIR should look at.
Premier Pacific Vineyards plans to spend $2 million on the permit process alone, and calculates that, after it passes the permit hurdles, any new vines will take 10 years to mature. Clark McKinley of CalPERS confirmed the organization’s real estate division had invested $200 million in the project but had no names of those responsible for the decision. In an email, he indicated that the level of funding did not need committee approval.
Premier Pacific acquired 20,000 acres of land known as the Preservation Ranch in 2003. At that time the Nature Conservancy considered purchasing the land but turned it down in favor of the Garcia River Tract on the Mendocino County side of the border.
The county describes Premier Pacific Vineyards’ property as approximately 45 square miles of land, a parcel large enough to alarm locals.
“We are drawing a line in the redwood duff,” said Chris Poehlman of Friends of the Gualala River.
“We are using less than 10 percent of the land for agriculture. The rest is in timber preserves or protected completely,” countered Tom Adams, the man in charge of obtaining the necessary permits for the project. “We have also committed to plant one million trees.”
Both sides also agree that the land is not in good shape. It was brutally clear cut in the past, and the secondary forest is still in recovery.
Kathleen Morgan of the Gualala River Watershed Council, a non-profit, non activist group under the aegis of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the EPA, said her group has monitored the river carefully for 12 years and determined that 85 percent of its problems stem from hundreds of miles of logging roads that lace the area.
“It is a recovering watershed,” Morgan said. “As we have upgraded the roads and done other projects, such as placing large wood in places to create pools, it has been improving.
“We have no opinion or stance on the project. That’s not what we do. I will say the Preservation Ranch is committed to upgrading 100 miles of roads. That’s a considerable amount.”
Poehlman disagrees, saying, “It’s an undammed watershed, and it’s just recovering from unsustainable harvesting.”
Eric Koenigshofer, another former Sonoma County Supervisor who is acting as a legal consultant to the project, said, “It’s private land, and someone is going to make use of it. In 40 years, what will people think? Probably that this is a reasonable and conscientious use of it.”
Both sides will have plenty of time to make their case. According to Scott Briggs, Sonoma County’s head of the EIR process, the draft environmental impact report is being prepared by a disinterested third party and will, at the earliest, be out by the end of the year.