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Considerable Land Remains for Sonoma Vineyards to Expand, Computer Model Shows

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted November 10, 1999

The Sonoma County wine country has considerable room to grow, according to predictions of a new computer forecasting model developed by Berkeley scientists. The researchers mapped how much Sonoma County land is suitable for vinyard development, where these parcels are located, and the environmental consequences should wide-scale conversion occur.

A booming wine market is driving Sonoma County's controversial vineyard expansion, said project director Adina Merenlender, a Berkeley conservation biologist and an assistant cooperative extension specialist with the Hopland Research and Extension Center in Hopland, Calif.

"California wines have been extremely popular nationally and internationally," she said, "leading to increased demand for wine grapes."

In the current market, wine grapes can result in profits as high as $4,000 per acre of vineyard land in full production, the new report said. The California wine crop was worth $2.1 billion in 1996, more than triple its value just eight years ago.

To make way for grapes, scenic hillsides harboring some of California's remaining oak woodlands are rapidly being cleared and planted with grapes, according to the report. The computer model developed by Merenlender and graduate student Emily Heaton predicts where future Sonoma vineyards might be planted.

The model crunched data drawn from a variety of Sonoma County land use and vineyard maps in addition to data provided by growers and county officials. The model revealed that despite the recent wave of planting, another 158,000 suitable Sonoma acres remain available for new vineyards. Should all the land be utilized in this fashion, 20 percent of the county ultimately could be covered with grapes, said Merenlender.

She said the model forecasts probable locations for future vineyards but does not say such development is inevitable or when it might occur.

Her report points to vulnerable stands of native oak that, if eliminated, could fragment large forest patches that harbor wildlife. Some smaller wooded areas could be eliminated altogether by agricultural development.

Much of this oak woodland is located on hillsides historically considered marginal for agriculture because of slope, drainage, poor soil or other characteristics. But booming wine demand now is making growers reconsider these areas. At the same time, growers are coming under increasing scrutiny from urban neighbors, the environmental community and government agencies concerned about the effects of vineyards on natural resources, such as endangered species and native trees, Merenlender said. She works to collect data so informed decisions can be made.

"We were able to identify priority sites that, if protected, could prevent fragmenting the largest remaining forested areas in Sonoma County," Merenlender said.



November 10 - 16, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 14)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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