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Three Conflicts That Will Shape Sonoma's Next Generation

The feuds that will shape Sonoma’s wine industry for decades to come.

 

Read more of the New Sonoma Crush here.

 

Weed vs. Wine
Wine and weed seem to coexist peacefully in Sonoma County, at least for now. Some small wineries and marijuana producers even rent spaces in the same buildings. And winemakers aren’t yet tearing out well-established vineyards to grow the lucrative cash crop en masse. In fact, many think the two industries can learn from each other. Says Jasmine Hirsch, general manager for Hirsch Winery in Cazadero, “I think marijuana wants to associate itself with wine because wine is expensive and glamorous. My friend who grows marijuana is asking me about how to hold weed dinners, like wine dinners.”

But wine and weed are beginning to compete in one area: labor. Farmworkers, already in short supply, are being lured by cannabis growers, who pay them upward of $16 an hour, compared with the $13.50 per hour that was the average pay for farmworkers last year in Sonoma County. Both industries are also competing for a finite number of local warehouses, which are needed to store perishable products. “Warehousing is the number-one thing right now,” says Andy Peay, owner of Peay Vineyards. The rise of legal cannabis has “really made lease prices go up. It’s pushing out wineries.”

Sonoma County supervisor Lynda Hopkins is aware of the tensions, but says a limit on the parcel size of cannabis plantings will keep the industries in equilibrium—for now. “We’re not going to see cannabis take over wine country,” Hopkins says.

 

The Coast vs. “the Coast”
The Sonoma Coast AVA is one of the most exciting wine appellations in North America. It’s also one of the most meaningless. Why? Much of the Sonoma Coast AVA doesn’t hug the coast at all, instead sprawling all the way from the sea to Santa Rosa, more than 20 miles inland. And at 516,000 acres, the Sonoma Coast AVA is more than double the size of the entire Napa Valley.

The size of the appellation serves to lump together winemakers on the actual coast, including Littorai and Ceritas, with huge inland growers like E. & J. Gallo Winery and Treasury Wine Estates. To consumers, the “coast” label connotes foggy, chilly vineyards within sight of the Pacific Ocean and pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah grapes that develop complex, expressive flavors as a result of their long and slow growing season. But for many of the wines bundled into the Sonoma Coast AVA, these characteristics are missing.

That’s why Fort Ross–Seaview, a San Francisco–size area near the actual coast, won its own AVA status in 2012. Now there are two more pending federal applications for subregions: Petaluma Gap and West Sonoma Coast. The backers behind both thought they were on the verge of being recognized until the Trump administration ordered a halt to new federal regulations of any kind. For now, the coastal grape growers must continue to endure larger companies in inland areas taking credit for their work.

 

Agriculturalists vs. Tourists
The Sonoma Valley was recently ranked as the world’s second-best wine vacation region, behind only Tuscany, by U.S. News & World Report. This is happy news for wineries, restaurateurs, and hoteliers, but not so much for people who work outside the industry. A Facebook page for the group Neighbors to Preserve Rural Sonoma County posts updates nearly every day on ongoing complaints about the wine industry: how tourist traffic might slow response to 911 calls; the annoyance of living next to short-term vacation rentals; how wineries might be underreporting their water use.

In some cases, organized neighbors have gone even further. In July, Leslie Rudd, owner of the Oakville Grocery stores, was denied a permit to build a winery on a 26-acre parcel he owns on Westside Road even though Sonoma County zoning staffers had originally recommended approving it. The debate touched on most of the county’s hot-button development issues: traffic on rural roads, winery-related event traffic, and the ever-growing number of wineries in town. Rudd proposed holding 37 events per year. That might not sound like much, but Rudd’s winery would have been the fourth within a stretch of just over half a mile, each with its own event calendar. Maybe the rejection of Rudd’s plan is an outlier, or maybe it’s a harbinger. Either way, it’s a clear symbol that this conflict is alive and well.

  

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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