They Paved Paradise, and Put up a Winery?

"God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools." -John Muir

I know I am not alone in my reverence toward the Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens; it's hard to ignore the cathedral quality under the canopy of the world's tallest tree.  On our trip up to Mendocino in September, driving through Sonoma and Mendocino counties, David and I saw truck after truck of truncated Redwoods barreling down the highway on the way to lumber yards.  As the count of these trucks grew, a seed of dread took root and I couldn't push it out of my mind.  Part of me wanted to kind of ignore them--if they're doing it, it's permitted and must be ok or the state of CA wouldn't permit it (how is that for illogical reasoning?).  A seed sprouted in my conscience and I have Sequoia devastation on the brain.  I know that the trees on the trucks we saw these are not old growth forest, and I know that Redwoods recommend themselves for construction purposes for several compelling reasons, but I still felt sick seeing those strange, awe-inspiring creatures stacked sideways on their way to the lumber yard.  I've been tracking some of the battle between the Redwood protection advocates and the wine industry advocates in Sonoma county, and I can't help but feel incredibly dismayed by what I'm learning.  The destruction wreaked by the viticulture industry on Redwood forests is far worse than the sordid tale of the lumber companies, as the land converted to this sort of agricultural use is completely ruined.  The forests cannot reestablish itself in these areas, and the consequences to the fauna, the watershed, and this drought-laden landscape can't be underestimated.  

"We take all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum, and charge the people a dollar and a half (or $7) just to see 'em."  I love Muir Woods, but it's just a glimpse into what the original range of Coast Redwood forest must have once been, a unique ecosystem that's been strangled by development in motley forms.  It's astounding that in 2011, the California government could sanction the wholesale removal of established Redwood forest.

The Bohemian recently wrote an expose on the battle in Sonoma county over huge tracts of Coast Redwood forest being converted to winery land--the largest in history by many times over--in which they painted the state's and county's lenience toward the vintners in Sonoma county as the prime culprits.  Certainly, the draw of the wine country and the production of good wine injects the economy with much-prized wealth, but it seems that more creative conversion of existing open space could help preserve these iconic forests.  I can't imagine a circumstance in which preservation of iconic Redwood forest wouldn't be worth extra effort on the part of planning and development. Some of these existing spaces aren't as prime growing grounds for prized grape strains as the forested sites that are home to Coast Redwoods.  The LA Times covered some of the back-and-forth over 2,000 acres of second growth forest being converted to Pinot Noir winery here, underscoring that Sequoia sempervirens habitat is perfect for growing Pinot grapes that need hot days and cool nights.  

I think it's important to remember that even the second growth forests are well on their way to stabilizing themselves as healthy ecosystems.  They are just now recuperating from devastating logging sweeps that wiped out 1000s of acres of native forest in the prior two centuries--but they are indeed recouping, even if it takes a hundred years or more.  The existence of mature forest land helps stabilize erosion and consequently supports nearby waterways during drought.  The nature of prepping land for commercial wineries makes it impossible for natural reforestation to ever occur, as they must scalp the land, to the end that nothing resembling the original Redwood habitat remains.  This is far worse than clear-cutting forest, and the repercussions are felt at every level in the ecosystem, down to the drying up of surrounding rivers and streams, extinction of rich salmon populations, and on and on... 

Among other necessary measures, the California wine industry needs to step up their growing practices to be more on par with the rest of the horticultural industry.  Anyone who pays attention to new introductions in the ornamental and edible gardening world understands the benefit of hybrid vigor, which allows for the shuffling of genetic material, producing stronger, more resilient strains of a given genus.  This, along with harvesting seed from varieties surviving in similarly harsh growing conditions, spurs continual advances in the selections offered.  We can cross an especially colorful-foliaged Heuchera americana cultivar with a heat-and-humidity-tolerant Heuchera villosa to get a selection like 'Southern Comfort.'  This kind of progress is discouraged in the viticulture world--those grapes haven't had any sex in a long time, and the gene-pool is shockingly stagnant.  On November 2nd of this year, NPR broadcasted on the effects of climate change on the wine industry in California, highlighting how shifts as small as 1-2 degrees could wipe out huge crops of commonly grown grapes in Napa and Sonoma.  There is an opportunity to rethink the hybridization and selection of ideal grape varieties for the area, but vintners are staunchly resistant because of the way labeled wines are marketed and sold.  There are myriad strains and selections of warmer-climate Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese vines that are better suited for hot Sonoma and Napa counties--ones that produce a broad range of delicious wines.  Perhaps some of these more vigorous strains could grow on tougher sites that aren't currently forested with Redwoods, but such grapes never reach American markets, as they can't be sold under known names (e.g. Pinot Noir, Merlot).  The marketing industry is thus preventing scientific advances in viticulture hybridization, as a superior hybrid that produces a better wine in a harsh climate can't be marketed under the name of its known, weaker parent variety.  So, because people know and will buy a Pinot Noir, and they don't know and therefore won't buy a southern Italian Negroamaro or Nero d'Avola, the money will go to devastating Sequoia forest instead of educating the wine-imbibing public.  This is a real problem: we can't expect vintners to invest millions in wines they can't sell.  Nevertheless, if Americans have revolutionized any industry in our 250 year tenure in the global economy, it's the advertising industry.  So get on the stick, Mad Men!  There's a goldmine to be had in new grape hybridization, and one that could protect one of our planet's most spectacular wonders: the Coast Redwood.

Here's a link to a petition against clear-cutting Redwoods for wineries:
Redwoods: members of a fire-dependent ecosystem


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