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Sonoma County eases permitting for low-impact vineyard replanting

In a move hailed by grape growers, Sonoma County supervisors have streamlined the permitting process for a vineyard replanting technique intended to reduce erosion.

On a unanimous vote, with no questions from board members or the public, the supervisors on Tuesday approved an expedited approval process for low-impact vineyard replanting, commonly known as “pluck and plant.”

The vote followed a December meeting in which the board did much of its deliberation on regulatory revisions sought by local grape growers.

Supervisors also approved the 2019 Crop Report, which showed 2,435 acres of replanting projects accounting for 70% of vineyard projects, with just 986 acres of new plantings.

The value of wine grapes produced on about 60,000 vineyard acres was $654 million, down 16% from the 2018 value of nearly $778 million, the report said.

The board’s action this week continued a process of minor revisions to the county’s landmark Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, known as VESCO, approved in 2000 amid fierce debate over the wine industry’s environmental footprint.

The measure, which made Sonoma one of only three counties in California to require a permit for vineyard planting or replanting, came in response to a landslide that caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden water in 1998.

Andy Casarez, land stewardship manager in the Agriculture Commissioner’s Office, said the goal of new measure “is to have the smallest amount of soil disturbance as possible.”

Low-impact replanting — an alternative to the “deep ripping” process that can lead to erosion — applies only to previously approved vineyards with no change in their footprint, officials said.

“Super cool,” Supervisor James Gore said, adding that a vote related to VESCO without public comment would have been “almost unbelievable” a few years ago.

Revisions to VESCO approved by the board in December and on Tuesday came about through a series of meetings the past two years between grape growers, county officials and environmental leaders along with board chair Lynda Hopkins and Gore.

The streamlined process requires growers to fill out a simple form and provide a map describing their replanting project, with an emailed response from county staff expected within about a week.

Officials will visit each site to ensure compliance with VESCO standards.

Mike Martini, executive director of the Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and the Environment, said the group representing 22 growers and wineries advocated for the streamlined permitting process.

Growers have been practicing “pluck and plant” to replace diseased vines or change varietals for some time, using a shovel or front loader, he said.

Martini, major owner of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol, called it an “alternative to digging up the whole thing” and creating conditions conducive to runoff and erosion.

The most productive lifetime for vines is 25 to 35 years, he said, noting that vineyard infrastructure, including posts and wires, lasts longer and creates a need for replanting.

Pluck and plant is a “no-brainer,” said Duff Bevill, a Healdsburg grower who manages 1,500 vineyard acres. Done with a shovel, it disturbs only a square foot of dirt per vine.

“The logic is so obvious,” he said.

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, which also welcomed the VESCO revisions, said she was not surprised by the replanting surge in 2019, up more than 60% from 1,503 acres the year before.,

The bumper grape crop of 2018 and the consequent wine surplus would have been “a good motivator” for growers contemplating a vineyard replant over the next five years “to start that process and limit wine grape supply for the following few years,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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