By Janet Wells

JUST HOW IMPORTANT are grapes to Sonoma County? Consider that the revenue from wine grapes almost doubled in the last five years, and in 1998 made up almost half of the county’s $450 million take from agricultural crops.

Sonoma County has established itself in the lucrative premium-grape niche, which has pushed prices from $950 a ton in 1989 to an average of $1,800 a ton in 1998. The best local pinot noir now commands upwards of $3,500 a ton–a fact that explains the increased demand for vineyard conversions as the Redwood Empire transforms itself wholeheartedly into the Wine Country.

Forty thousand acres of grapes–a 20 percent increase in the past five years–is Sonoma County’s cash cow, and those who have been fighting for regulation of the industry know that tampering with grape growing is akin to attacking the lifeblood of Sonoma County.

As executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action (the county’s largest conservation organization), Mark Green is one of the region’s environmental stalwarts. But when he signed on to a historic agreement between environmentalists and grape growers that morphed into the much-contested Hillside Vineyard Ordinance, Green suddenly found himself on the defensive, accused by activists of selling out to the county’s powerful agriculture industry.

“I wish that I could have the luxury of being able to take a very purist ideological interpretation and say it’s all or nothing,” Green says of the compromise. “The standard I apply is how does it affect the environment? If you use that measuring stick, this ordinance is a significant jump over the unregulated environment we were in before.”

The Town Hall Coalition “adds to the chorus of voices calling for regulation of the impact of the wine industry,” he says. “It is very valuable for there to be ongoing public activity that puts pressure on county government to be further regulating expansion of the industry.

“What is not productive,” he adds as a caveat, “is inflammatory language, personal attacks, and shooting at one another as environmentalists.

“There’s a stridency of tone among some of the people that have monopolized a lot of the time at town hall forums and who, at the last minute, raised concerns about the vineyard ordinance that was already approved, attacking it for what it wasn’t, rather than for what it was,” he says.

“Those of us engaged in the nuts and bolts of the process know that taking two steps forward and going back one is better than trying to take 10 steps forward and going back none.”

From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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