The Mendonoma Coast’s Second Spanish Invasion
by Will Parrish, June 16, 2011
The North Coast's biggest forestland to vineyard conversion ever? Courtesy Friends of the Gualala River
Spanish wine corporation Grupo Codorníu is accustomed to doing things in a big way. It is reputed to own a greater expanse of vineyard acreage than any wine company in Spain, which in turn has more land under grapevine cultivation than any nation in the world. It is perhaps the world's largest distributor of the Spanish sparkling wine Cava, producing more than 100 million bottles of it annually at a wine factory in Barcelona, which are distributed en masse to over 100 countries spanning the globe.
Codorníu's portfolio also features what may well be the world's largest vineyard, a 4,000-acre span of tendril and vine that acts as source of grapes for one among the many wineries in its portfolio, Raimat – “recognized,” according to the company's web site, “as Spain's preeminent wine estate.” At 6.25 square miles, this monolithic grape plantation covers a surface area equivalent to nearly one and a half Ukiahs.
With such grandiosity in mind, it is not at all surprising that in one of the various Wine Country regions where Codorníu is invested, it is proposing to carry out the largest conversion of designated forestland to vineyards ever to occur there. What may be slightly surprising is that said region, the California North Coast, is located nearly half a world away from the company's Iberian headquarters.
The proposal in question, first pitched to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) in different form all the way back in 2001, currently calls for clearing approximately 153-acres on a 324-acre estate known as “Fairfax,” located just outside of Annapolis on the northernmost Sonoma Coast, just south of the Mendocino County line. Countless such displacements of forests by vineyards have occurred across the years, although never officially on the same scale.
Codorníu's plan would culminate roughly as follows: an underpaid migrant workforce will wade into 153 acres of chemically sterilized barren land where groves of redwood, doug fir, and manzanita had only just stood, the trees' root systems having just been cleaved from the earth by a small fleet of Caterpillars D-9s or D-10 bulldozers, and install rows of pinot noir and other “premium” grape varieties, which the company will use as a source of the wines it makes under the “Artesa” label based in the Napa Valley. Codorníu founded Artesa in Napa's Carneros region in 1991, in the midst of a period whereby investments in prestigious California Wine Country appellations were emerging as more and more lucrative options for Europe's greatest wine baronies – viz., the Rothschilds in Napa Valley and Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley.
That period arguably ended with the self-immolation of the global economy in 2008, although Codorníu has persisted with its original plan essentially intact. According to vinters in the area, the gold ridge soil of the area combined with the coastal influences of the climate extend the growing season, thus making for a complex – and, potentially, highly prestigious – wine.
If the plan goes through, it would deal a severe blow to a landbase struggling to recover from years of clear-cut forestry practices, also putting a new straw in the Gualala River watershed, which is already horribly damaged and nowadays supports only a relative handful of fish. One of the river's three forks, the Wheatfield Fork, dried up entirely in 2008, despite having flowed year-round throughout its recorded history. This catastrophic turn was a likely consequence of intensive vineyard development in the region across the previous ten years, which greatly exacerbated damage wrought over years of logging (mostly), as well as ranching and fruit tree cultivation (secondarily).
Codorníu likely would have successfully carried out its forest-to-vineyard conversion several years ago but for the work of Friends of the Gualala River (FoGR), a small non-profit group that runs on the strength of a handful of volunteers who live in Annapolis and Gualala, and which is sustained financially by small donations from local residents. FOGR has consistently hired specialists in the relevant scientific disciplines to challenge the conversion project as it has slowly played out through the regulatory system. As a consequence, that process has become an increasingly hard slog for Codorníu/Artesa, which first wrote a THP in 2001, then withdrew it in 2004, suddenly introducing a new one in 2009. It released its first draft Environmental Impact Review for the project in 2009, then essentially revised several pages of the document and recirculated it earlier this year. The more than 10 years the company has taken to put forward its final EIR is nearly unprecedented.
Looming in the background of the Codorníu proposal is the plan by Premier Pacific Vineyards (PPV) to convert approximately 1,700 acres of redwoods to grapes on nearby hilltops, in the same watershed, which I've described in previous pieces and will also do so in far more detail in an upcoming piece. The executives at PPV are undoubtedly watching closely to see how, or if, the “Fairfax” project ultimately pans out.
While it would be prohibitively expensive for many vineyard developers to get bogged down in a regulatory quagmire involving competent environmentalist foes, particularly having made such an alarmingly destructive proposal, not so for Codorníu. According to one source, the company has annual revenue of nearly $500 million.
In fact, the company spent a total of $50 million across two phases to construct the Artesa Winery complex in Carneros, a lavish facility that closely reflects the ostentatious image it has yoked to its American operations. Drawing on Codorníu's stature as the longest-running wine company in Spain (founding year: 1553), the company goes to elaborate lengths to play up the artistry of its wines, implying that they draw on ancient oenological traditions with a nouveau twist. “Artesa” translates as “craftsman” in Catalan, the language of Barcelona, Spain.
Artesa's Carneros facility is a modernist-style winery built right into a hillside and covered with lush native grasses, shaped in the kind of pyramidal configuration that creates the illusion of a temple just unearthed – as one fawning wine critic described it. To create the design, the winery's construction crew leveled the hillside in question, essentially removing the entire hilltop (irony, not tragedy, is the genre to which at least part of the story of Codorniu's American operations belongs). Stairs framed by cascading water lead into the winery, with the courtyard, staircase, and winery itself all adorned with opulent steel and stained glass sculptures. The interior features sleek furnishings, an array of neon colored walls bonded to glass walls, with fine wood furnishings placed sparingly throughout the room, which when combined with the collection of sculptures, paintings, glass figures, and ancient-looking oak barrels, create the unmistakable impression that one is lodged not inside a winery, but rather an art studio.
Of course, this approach to image-making has countless precedents in Wine Country. As the journalist-historian of the region James Conaway observed in his book Napa, when describing the marketing strategy the wine industry adopted in the Napa Valley in the '80s and '90s, “'The winemaker's art,' in fact a craft, was a phrase repeated throughout history; winemakers realized early on that art is more marketable than craft, and more prestigious. Robert Mondavi and his family, on the release of Opus One, compared the different vintages of their elegant new Cabernet to Picasso and Cezanne -- and charged an unprecedented $30 a bottle... If wine was art, the winery was perforce a studio. Some became unofficial galleries as well."
Artesa has outdone nearly all other wineries, however, by actually having featured its own artist-in-residence at the winery, a nationally famous Napa Valley sculpter named Gordon Huether. The amount the company spends annually to maintain its modernist art image, then, would seem to be is greater than the wine production budgets of many modern wineries.
Codorníu's financial and cultural stature is far greater in its home country than in the United States, of course. Take one member of the company's former majority owning family, Manuel Raventós, who parlayed his stature as a one-time owner of Codorniu to become director at Criteria CaixaCorp, the principal investment holding arm of Europe's largest savings bank, La Caixa, which has literally tens of billions of dollars under management. Raventós is also a director of Spain's largest health insurance company, VidaCaixa Group. Raventós formerly was a director of Spain's largest oil refining company, Respol, the 15th largest such outfit in the world.
In spite of its financial successes, Codorníu as a company always makes wise investments. The decision by its Napa proxies to go to such extreme lengths to develop a pinot noir vineyard outside Annapolis was made during the height of the premium grape rush, which statistically peaked in the late-'90s in terms of the number of vineyard acres being planed, tapering off noticeably after the Silicon Valley bubble burst in 2002. Since 2008, the market for high-end wine has been severely glutted in particular, with countless Sonoma and Mendocino growers having to sit on their grapes or sell them at an unprofitable price.
The market for Pinot Noir remained on the ascendancy far longer than it otherwise would have, however, because of how much consumer interest in that varietal arose after the 2004 release of the movie Sideways. As the great Frankfurt School philosopher Theodore Adorno once wrote, "The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them."
But even this particular counterfeit no longer carries as much weight it did pre-2008. Last month, Friends of the Gualala River mailed an appeal to the current Codorniu CEO, calling on him to pull the plug on the project. The letter was signed by a coalition including numerous national and California environmental organizations. The letter “cite[s] unacceptable impacts of the project due to irreversible loss of redwood forest and soils, impacts on recovery of severely threatened steelhead trout, Coho salmon, rare wildlife species, river flows, and water quality,” as a prelude to it states on the FOGR web site. A number of new clips concerning the downturn in the regional wine market were attached to the letter, in an effort to persuade the Codorniu brain trust to see the economic folly in carrying their plan forward.
The letter has resulted in considerable publicity on behalf of the struggle to prevent the Fairfax conversion. An Associated Press story on the topic by a writer named Jason Dearen hit the wire last week. It was picked up by newspapers and internet publications throughout the country, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post.
The story was at first published on the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's web site here. Mysteriously, it then vanished from the web site of the North Coast's illustrious newspaper of record hours after the initial posting. “Article No Longer Available,” the page where the article once appeared succinctly reads.
All of that isn't even to mention perhaps the most salient aspect of Codorniu's invasion of the remote reaches of the California North Coast: the fact that the “Fairfax” property is one of the most important surviving sacred sites of the Kashaya Pomo people, whose contemporary homebase is the Stewarts Point Rancheria a few miles from Annapolis. Burial grounds have been discovered at the site, as well as strong evidence of a previous village site. In my next feature for the AVA, which will likely appear next week, I will describe the regulatory proceedings surrounding the Fairfax conversion in far more detail, set against the backdrop of the efforts by Kashaya elders to protect the site from being bulldozed for grapes, and instead turn it into an education center focused on Kashaya history and lifeways.
Until then, a few final words on the project. When I first began gathering documentation on the wine industry's activities across the North Coast, I made a day-long visit to CALFIRE's North Coast regional headquarters off Steele Rd., near Santa Rosa City College in northern Santa Rosa. In particular, I was interested in understanding more details concerning the spate of forest-to-vineyard conversions in the area in recent years. I asked at the front desk if anybody was available to guide me through the process of using the CALFIRE reading room. An engaging young forester in her late-20s early-30s emerged from somewhere amid the bowels of CALFIRE's trailer and office complex, parked me inside the small trailer where the reading room is located, then emerged with an Excel chart displaying all proposed and completed forest projects in Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino Counties across the past 10 years. She asked me to select one of these projects so she could pull out the file and walk me through how it is organized.
I immediately selected the Artesa/Fairfax file as our case study, it having the largest number in a column indicating the amount of acreage to be converted. As we leafed through the collection of documents, her explaining the philosophical underpinnings of CALFIRE's cataloging system as we went, her level of interest in the project was visibly growing. She seemed a little bit dumbfounded. Finally, she let slip a candid assessment of the project represented by the archival record splayed out on the table before us.
“Wow, they actually had to withdraw their initial proposal,” she exclaimed, though not loud enough that anybody other than me could hear. “That must mean there's really something wrong this project!”
There is indeed. It simply remains to be seen if the regulatory system will officially recognize it.