Considerable land remains for Sonoma vineyards to expand, according to UC Berkeley forecast

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- The Sonoma County wine country has considerable room to grow, according to predictions of a new computer forecasting model developed by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. 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.

Their findings will be presented tomorrow (Tues., Nov. 2) at 6:30 p.m. in the Supervisors' Chambers of the Sonoma County Administration Center in Santa Rosa.

A booming wine market is driving Sonoma County's controversial vineyard expansion, said project director Adina Merenlender, a UC Berkeley conservation biologist and an assistant cooperative extension specialist with the UC Berkeley 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 UC Berkeley report. The computer model developed by Merenlender and UC Berkeley 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.

Other researchers on the project were UC Berkeley programmer analyst Colin Brooks and UC Berkeley graduate student David Newburn. The UC Berkeley group collaborated with the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association; Circuit Rider Productions Inc.; Tim Pudoff of the Sonoma County Information Systems Department; Rhonda Smith, a farm advisor in Sonoma County; and many growers and other data providers. The project was funded by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.


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