California is a big state, but it may still not be big enough for two of its most iconic plants: redwoods and wine grapes. One is a titan of untamed nature, and the other a fickle star of horticulture, but now both are fighting for the same coveted real estate.
Two major wineries are seeking permission to raze 2,000 acres of redwood and Douglas fir trees in Northern California, the Los Angeles Times reports
, part of a plan to expand their lucrative Pinot Noir vineyards. It would be the largest woods-to-winery ecosystem switch in state history, according to the Times, and has sparked a bitter dispute between nature lovers and oenophiles.
"We are not going to let them rip these trees out by their roots, change the soil chemistry with amendments, and develop neighborhoods so that these forests will never grow back," local environmentalist Chris Poehlmann tells the Times. "This is not a plan to build a mall," counters Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission
. "They're talking about growing grapes."
Pinot Noir has enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent years, often attributed to the 2004 movie "Sideways," and the Times credits it for "part of the post-recession rebound of the state's wine industry." But it's also one of the most notoriously difficult grapes to grow, demanding a highly specific climate with warm days, cool nights and well-drained soil. It has thrived in France's Burgundy region for centuries, but in recent decades it also proved profitable in parts of the U.S., namely Northern California.
The tonnage of Pinot Noir grapes crushed for winemaking in California grew by more than 350 percent from 1990 to 2010, according to data from the San Francisco-based Wine Institute
. The state produced nearly 150,000 tons of the grapes for that purpose last year, mainly in Sonoma County, which boasts more than 11,000 acres dedicated to Pinot Noir (Napa County, by comparison, only has about 2,600 acres).
But Pinot Noir isn't the only plant that likes Sonoma County. Redwood and fir trees evolved to live there, and are thus even more interwoven in local ecosystems than the European grapes. And as two wineries — Spain-based Codorniu
and Napa-based Premier Pacific Vineyards
— now try to make space for Pinot Noir by clearing out the native trees, they find themselves in a battle not just between two plants, but between a symbol of humans' agricultural ingenuity and nature's majestic wildness.
The wineries are eyeing an area of Sonoma County, called Annapolis, that's reportedly ideal for Pinot Noir. Codorniu would use the land to supplement production from its Napa winery, Artesa
, while Premier Pacific wants to grow more grapes and build 60 luxury estates on a tract it already owns, called Preservation Ranch
. "We are here, first and foremost, because this is a premier location with potential to produce world-class wine," Preservation Ranch's Tom Adams tells the Times.
The developers have pledged an array of environmental efforts in hopes of winning over critics, such as restoring streams, expanding a county park and planting 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs. But since the trees are slow-growing — redwoods often live several centuries — and are both literal and figurative pillars of their communities, conservationists are intent on saving the existing ones. They've organized under the moniker Friends of the Gualala River
, named after a nearby waterway, and have also drawn support from the local Kashia Band of Pomo Native Americans.
"I get mad just thinking about the people from far away who can't wait to buy wine from vineyards that would destroy our forests and ancestral lands," Violet Parrish, a Pomo tribal elder, tells the Times. "We don't want those vineyards, or the fertilizer and pesticides that would pollute water supplies our children will depend upon."
For more information about California redwoods, check out the video below from Assignment Earth