Redwoods versus red wine

Grapes for treesThe redwood tree and the wine grapevine are both iconic in Northern California. Two wineries are petitioning the state to let them clear redwoods and Douglas firs to make room for new Pinot Noir vineyards.Environmentalists want the trees protected.

Not surprisingly, U.S. winemakers are seeking to capitalize on the public’s renewed interest and hedge their bets by diversifying what they produce. One wine getting attention, particularly among restaurant sommeliers, is Pinot Noir.

A high-end Pinot Noir from Sonoma may not be cheap — but it’s often less expensive than a bottle of Cabernet from Napa.

“People want something to drink in a restaurant that they can enjoy and yet still afford. More often, that’s a Pinot Noir,” said Merry Edwards, owner of a winery in the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol.

But the idea of turning these forest lands into grape farms chills some conservationists.

“I don’t see a need for more deforestation to have a great wine economy, because there is a lot of cleared land already available,” said Adina Merelender, a UC Berkeley conservation biologist.

“The big issue for us,” added Jay Holcomb of the Sierra Club, “is that redwoods-to-vineyards conversions are worse than clear-cutting because they are permanent.”

Opponents organized under the banner Friends of the Gualala River have enlisted allies among the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, who worry that the project would destroy sacred remains scattered throughout the targeted groves.

“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,” said Violet Parrish, a Pomo tribal elder who lives near Annapolis. “We don’t want those vineyards, or the fertilizer and pesticides that would pollute water supplies our children will depend upon.”

One thing everyone seems to agree on, though, is that Sonoma County, the lead regulatory agency considering the land deal, faces some tough choices when planners take up the issue later this year.

Sonoma County planner David Schiltgen says the project is “controversial from beginning to end.”

“They are proposing to completely remove the forest and replace it with vineyards,” he said, “at a time when political winds are howling with global deforestation and carbon-sequestration concerns.”