The Price of Wine

| January 22, 2006 | 3 Comments
  • 3 Comments

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.

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  • cookiecrumb

    I’m so glad you’re bringing this perspective to the story. We had torn out the NYT article to read (still sitting unread on the coffee table) — and we’re headed to Jenner next week for two days of R&R. Now I will have a new set of discussion points.
    I’d hate to arrive at the B&B, LL Bean-shod, with tourist map in hand, glibly asking “where can we taste yuppie wine?”
    (I would *never* do that, BTW… especially the LL Bean shoe part!) :D
    ::snork:: New York Times lifestyles reporting. Me-me-me.

  • shuna fish lydon

    After living in Napa for a few years I have come to find that No One wants to fully discuss the impact mono-cropping grapes has had on ANY eco system anywhere.

    Even the most devout “local/organic/sustainable” person.

    Wine is a luxury item. It’s not food. It’s an idustry that would not exist without “illegal” people and illegal farming practices and we as American Californians are just so Proud of it all.

    Amazing.

  • F.Mungus

    Luxury…well yes I suppose so here in America. Consider a typical meal in a European household. The majority will include wine, and it’s not considered a luxury. It’s part of the meal. This is the way I and my family consider wine. Like good food it is an integral part of the family experience of sharing a meal. Proud? Well, yes! If growing grapes and making wine were in your family for several generations you would be proud too…of the wine and the grapes that produce it.

    Chopping down whole forests and leveling hilltops in pursuit of the perfect Pinot is a zin (ok, I couldn’t help it). Seriously, it’s just not necessary unless you’re Kendal Jackson or some other publicly held enterprise whose shareholders are screaming for higher revenues. Profit is the incentive, the motivation behind the large scale destruction of California’s woodlands being mowed down for grape production and this is just not right. OK, so that’s obvious.

    What about those individuals who move out to Annapolis or Cazadero or some other remote location and want to put in a vineyard to craft a fine wine? What about the little guy that carefully terraces his or her hillside, where do we draw the distinction between eco-harmony and eco-rape? And if it’s all illegal as you say, even for those who practice responsible farming techniques, what then? No wine at all?

    The pendulum of fashion and philosophy, politics and religion, ecology and economy will perpetually swing. From time to time it rests on the opposite side of your own beliefs and that’s when it takes your voice and actions to get it swinging back in your direction. Somewhere in the middle of this arc is the balance where all coexists in relative harmony. I believe this applies to this discussion. The shotgun approach will only serve in taking out friends as well as foes.

    BTW, what’s wrong with L.L.Bean? Did I miss something?