June 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Feeling The Squeeze In The Vineyards

by Anne Louise Bannon

  • Suburban residential development and agriculture can be uncomfortable neighbors in grapegrowing regions across the nation--but the problem is especially intense in California.
  • California's Livermore and Temecula valleys are profiting from plans that preserve existing vineyards and encourage new plantings, while allowing for new housing.
  • Education, communication and Right to Farm ordinances can help ease the strain between nonfarming newcomers and grapegrowers.
A row of tract houses traces the crest of the hills above rolling vineyards. A neighboring farmer decides to throw in the towel and follow the siren call of a developer's cash. There's talk in the county government of new restrictions on pesticide use, and there are already noise abatement issues.

The problem is relatively simple: People from suburban and urban areas around the country are pushing deeper and deeper into traditionally rural areas. Some are looking for the beauty of a bucolic environment. Others just want more affordable housing than they can get closer to the urban areas where they work.

"We see people who work in Los Angeles living in Bakersfield," said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). "People who work in San Jose live in Los Banos."

Though the problem is starting to affect winegrowers across the nation, Ross pointed out that it's most intense in California. Not only does the state have one of the largest agricultural outputs in the world, it's also the most populous state in the nation with three major metropolitan areas. And it's a population that is expected to keep growing.

"It's a huge challenge in the center of the state," Ross said. "It's happening up and down the Central Valley. There were 500 farms lost to development last year."

While the loss of farmland does create problems by driving up the price of the remaining land, according to Jean-Pierre Wolff, who owns Wolff Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County, the greater concern is problems caused when people move into an agricultural area without understanding what happens on a farm.

Feeling The Squeeze In The Vineyards
A hot air balloon punctuates the interface of rural vineyard acreage and encroaching suburban residential areas as it drifts above Hart Winery during the annual Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival.
"I'm involved with the agricultural task force for San Luis Obispo County, and it's a constant discussion item," Wolff said. In his area, he added, an advocacy group instigated a grand jury investigation over local farmers' pesticide use. "The concerns are increased regulations prompted by individuals who feel there's not enough protections from pesticides," Wolff said.

Other complaints he's heard are about dust control, and bright lights late at night during harvest. Once, somebody asked Wolff if he could turn his wind machines on in the morning, rather than running them at night.

"You always have conflict with the urbanag interface," said Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association (SCGGA). "It's just that people don't understand the agricultural world. They come on the weekend and it's beautiful. Then they realize after they move in what it's like. So it's a problem."

Not every part of California experiences the same conflicts. In fact, in two winegrowing areas in the state, the goal is to increase vineyards, and the people moving into the adjacent housing projects seem to be well aware of what they're getting into--they're even liking it.

Livermore, about an hour east of San Francisco, is on the edge of the Bay Area sprawl. Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who represents the Livermore area, said that his predecessor did a lot of work on the South Livermore Plan, a mandate for the Livermore winegrowing area that encourages the expansion of vineyards as it allows for new residences.

The plan creates a win-win situation for both the valley's winegrowers and developers. "Everybody likes to see open space," Haggerty said. "But nobody wants to pay for it."

The restrictions on development in the valley actually work for the developers by making the area attractive to buyers. Mark Triska, a commercial real estate broker, not only owns a small vineyard in the area, but bought one of the homes in the development specifically because of the low growth restrictions.

"We bought a pre-existing vineyard from one of the local wineries," he said. "We bought here because we knew we would not be in a high density area. The South Livermore Plan was going to keep the area agricultural. We were attracted to living in the vineyard."

Triska, who describes himself as a gentleman farmer, is not involved in the day-to- day operation of his vineyard. But he still finds living next to a vineyard attractive.

"There are days when we have to close all the windows because they're spraying, and we have lots of leaves in the pool. But those are minor inconveniences," he said. "We're in a valley. There are rolling hills. It's pretty. And we can be in downtown in six minutes." Haggerty said that beyond some livestock complaints, most people who move into the area seem to take the area's agricultural activities in stride.

Triska agreed. "You come out here with the expectation and know that you're moving next to a farm. I guarantee that people in my area would never trade places again."

Haggerty said that he's aware of other counties where there are more conflicts between residents and farmers, but he thinks having the plan in place makes it much easier to prevent problems. "I think the difference is that we're doing the opposite," he said about other areas. "We're trying to increase vineyards. There's a plan that constantly says we want to re-invest in our wine heritage. We're protecting open space and protecting air quality."

The Temecula wine region--smack in the middle of encroaching urban sprawl trickling along Interstate 15 from Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south--is in a similar situation to Livermore's. The number of wineries in the area has exploded over the past few years, in spite of the region's ongoing fight with the glassy-winged sharpshooter and Pierce's disease, which wiped out a significant percentage of its of vineyards in 2000.

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors recently passed a plan similar to Livermore's, which pleased winegrowers in the area, once they overcame their initial concerns.

"One (concern) was the idea that somebody might come in and set up a tasting room for wines produced outside the area, but not adequately support winegrape growing in the area," said Peter Poole, owner of Mt. Palomar Winery.

Poole explained that before 2000, most of the growers in the Temecula region sold their grapes elsewhere in the state or to local mega-producer Callaway. However, even though the vineyards bounced back from the Pierce's disease, wineries outside the area were concerned about the sharpshooter coming in on grapes from Temecula, and stopped buying them. Callaway, forced to buy grapes from outside the region to keep up its production, continued buying elsewhere. In addition, it recently was acquired by Allied Domecq Wines USA, and is in the process of moving its operations out of the region.

"Basically, in the end, that market for Temecula grapes is gone," Poole said. So the growers decided that since the industry was growing in the area, they would ask the supervisors to create an ordinance to mandate that if a winery set up shop in the area, 75% of the grapes it used must come from Temecula. They also mandated that a winery must produce at least 3,500 gallons of wine.

The supervisors saw an opportunity, and in the same ordinance created open space and development requirements similar to Livermore's. "I think Temecula is pretty built out now," said Ron Roberts, the legislative team member who helped Supervisor Jeff Stone put together the ordinance. Roberts not only used to own a winery in the area, he's currently mayor of the city of Temecula. "You just can't find those estate lots."

Roberts said that between Callaway and Bell Vineyards selling out to developers, there were concerns about losing vineyards to housing, especially given the tourist traffic to the area. "It's a very popular place for all of Southern California to go to," Roberts said. "It's becoming more and more of a destination point."

Poole, however, said that land loss doesn't seem to be a major threat, since the properties that had most recently gone to developers were vineyards that had already been lost to Pierce's disease. But nonetheless, the plan is a good thing. "That's going to be wonderful," he said.

While the Livermore and Temecula plans seem to be good solutions, the problem, according to Frey, is that Livermore and Temecula are unique areas. "We have a general plan that's pretty good at limiting sprawl," Frey said. But the general nonfarming population in Sonoma County tends to be very sensitive to environmental concerns, and Frey reiterated that misunderstandings are rife in the area.

Both Frey and Wolff said that education and communication are key. Frey said that Sonoma winegrowers are encouraged to send postcards out periodically, warning neighbors about spraying or nighttime harvesting. They're also encouraged to get to know the neighbors, so it's not just a faceless farm they're protesting, but real human beings.

Sustainable farming practices can also help, as can Right to Farm ordinances which warn people buying in rural areas about what they can expect from the local farms. Wolff, however, said that in his area, protests against farming have watered down the ordinance. "It really doesn't have much teeth anymore," he said.

Ross said that the problem will continue, and it's futile to vent frustrations about the farmers being there before the complaining newcomers. "There's over 36 million people living in California," she said, "and 1% farm for a living. You can feel frustrated. You can do your best to act proactively and try to accommodate them as best you can. There's no easy answer. Neighbor issues are neighbor issues."

(Anne Louise Bannon covers all aspects of the wine industry from California. She can be contacted at edit@winesandvines.com.)
Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.