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Turning Down the Noise

Last Friday morning, Judge Richard Henderson opened Mark Scaramella’s frost fan temporary injunction hearing with the usual pro forma, judicial assurance that he'd be fair: “I know that many of you in the courtroom this morning are here because your lives have been disrupted by the noise of these vineyard fans…” At that point the majority of the three dozen wine biz people emitted a bovine, “NOOOOOOoooo.”

Plaintiff Mark Scaramella later commented, “It was dramatic, to be sure, but not that loud — I don’t think they violated the County’s noise ordinance.”

After the wine ruminants had exhaled their “NOOOOooooo,” Judge Henderson continued, “And I know there are many of you here who think your livelihoods are at stake.”

Judge Henderson then said he’d read the filings and had written a “tentative opinion.” He invited the parties to the dispute to comment on it. Everybody looked at everybody else. “What tentative opinion? Is there a tentative opinion?” Apparently the judge’s distribution network had hit a snag. A recess was called while his court staff quickly copied off the opinion.

In brief, the opinion says that Scaramella’s request for a temporary (short-term) injunction is denied because there is no documentation on the record demonstrating that the decibel levels cited in the County’s noise ordinance have been exceeded.

Henderson also declared that since Scaramella had claimed a zoning ordinance violation the County’s so-called “Right to Farm” ordinance didn’t apply. It isn't at issue. Henderson essentially allowed that Scaramella could proceed with a request for an injunction or amended complaint if he could demonstrate that the decibel levels stipulated by the noise ordinance had been exceed by his neighbor’s fans.

After the hearing, Scaramella issued the following statement:

Contrary to what some in the wine industry and County officials continue to say, we are NOT and have never been opposed to vineyard frost protection. We understand the need and we are quite aware of the drought conditions that have prompted the recent upswing in fan installations and, like everyone else, we are happy with the reduced water consumption that fan-based frost protection generates.

We simply believe that the fans, when near residences, should be quieter so that neighbors can sleep. There are a number of steps available to do just that — such as quieter fan blades, lower operating speeds, different positions, sound barriers, and alternative commercially available frost protection methods (such as the patented and less expensive Cold Air Drains already in effective use in a number of Anderson Valley vineyards) which could be considered to reduce the helicopter-level of noise suffered by neighbors of vineyards with permanent fan installations.

The judge's view that decibel levels should be determined, we agree. Although we note that at no time in the opposition filings by the County or the grape growers did they dispute our position that the fans are way too loud. In fact, we have no doubt that reliable decibel measurements will support our case.

But that responsibility lies with the County. If the County wants to designate me to make arrangements for legally admissible decibel testing for them, I'm willing to discuss it. It would obviously require more than just a private citizen wandering around at 3am with a Radio Shack decibel meter.

Although the judge denied our request for the temporary injunction, which was filed early specifically to try to deal with the problem before the 2015 frost season began, he clearly ruled that we can proceed with the suit and that the so-called "right to farm" question is not under consideration given that our complaint is with the zoning standards, not right to farm.

In other words, it's not what we wanted, but it's more than we expected. Although Judge Henderson wasn't inclined to take judicial note of it, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association essentially agrees with our position that the issue should be dealt with via permit conditions:

Specifically (middle of page 1), ‘Mendocino County is the only county in California to require a permit for the installation of wind machines. They take into account placement, noise and need when considering the application.’

County Counsel Doug Losak prompted a sidelong glance from the judge when Losak said that the County only evaluates the pad and the wiring on wind fan permit applications. (!)

But we agree with the AV Winegrowers that taking noise into account in processing individual wind fan permits is, conceptually, the same thing we seek in court. It's unfortunate that we have to go through all this legal rigamarole for something we seem to agree on, simply because the County of Mendocino, and specifically our District Supervisor Mr. Dan Hamburg, refuses to deal with this serious, widespread problem.

— Mark Scaramella, Boonville

* * *

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat's account of Friday's hearing stated that "frost fans have been idle for years." Untrue. The fans were not in place until last year. They are newly introduced. The judge, of course, buys whole the assertion by the industry that it's either destroy the nighttime peace of a thousand of so residents or "millions of dollars in losses." Some Anderson Valley vineyards have not installed frost fans. As one of the non-frost fan growers put it, "We can lose some grapes to frost, but it would be wicked, consecutive frost mornings that would wipe out the whole year's yield. That hasn't happened here."

When was the last time the Santa Rosa Press Democrat said something even mildly critical of the wine industry? It’s been so long that we can’t remember any examples at all. That’s why we were surprised to read in Tuesday’s PD: “[John] Williams believes that the best wines are made from vines with deep roots and that by irrigating as routinely as they do, the majority of Napa growers are feeding the vine a drug (water) — and there is no methadone solution.”

John Williams is the owner of an organic vineyard in Rutherford (Napa Valley) called “Frog’s Leap” and the quote from Mr. Williams is in an article by freelance wine writer Dan Berger who, unsurprisingly, is not a Press Democrat staffer. He's a long time wine writer for the LA Times and Associated Press, which may explain why his prose is much livelier than the usual rote tributes to grape growers we get in the PD.

Long-time AVA readers may recall some of our somewhat similar comments about so-called water conservation and drip irrigation which frequently isn’t conservation at all (which we’ll conveniently summarize for you):

As you probably noticed, most of the newer vineyards going in these days are what can be called “wall-to-wall” vineyards. Every plantable patch of vineyard dirt has vines on it. Sometimes the vines are even on the vineyard’s boundary fence. Older vineyards, both in the US and in Europe were almost all dry farmed. They were not planted in the new industrial style which uses very narrow rows between the vines planted on every possible acre. Many of the old vineyards are still dry farmed without any irrigation because, as vines naturally mature, they develop long taproots down more than ten feet to take their water from deeper in the ground as they need it. But, of course, that approach will only sustain so many vines per acre. If you jam your vines into every nook and cranny of your vineyard acreage to maximize your yield the vines will compete for available underground water and none will get enough.

Solution: Drip irrigation. A UC Davis viticulture and enology professor named Larry Williams [no relation to John quoted above] has changed the face of viticulture. Williams recommends that drip irrigation be used NOT to conserve water but to maximize yield and control the growth of the vines with artificial injections of chemical-laced water. “If you're a grape grower, you want to have that vine dependent on what you do so you can manipulate them,” Larry Williams says. “Since the vine is getting most of its water from the drip system, then a grape grower has greater control on how much water the vine gets.”

Williams' recommendations have become standard industry practice in recently planted large vineyards, almost all of them dependent on the drip. And if you’re thinking that it sounds like the vines are in an intensive care unit, you’re not far off. Using Larry Williams' drip-intensive method, shallow-rooted “riparian rootstock” is densely planted. Vines have been specially developed to be shallow, not the deep taproots like old-style vines.

With shallow roots and drip irrigation, vineyard managers can plant many more grapevines per acre because the high-density vines in industrial vineyards don't need taproots — they are watered with pond water and the chemically-basted ripening process can be carefully manipulated. Vineyard managers can also apply special growth accelerators, as well as pesticides and insecticides via the pond-water dripped on the vines.

In Europe, where most grapes have been dry-farmed, 450-500 vines per acre are common. Some people think these old-style vineyards are romantic. But in the last few years the production of wine is about as romantic as the production of a bottle of Coca Cola.

Under the Larry Williams (and UC-Extension Service, a special ag welfare payout) method of high-density, water-intensive planting, artificial watering and chemicalization, grape growers can cram up to 2500 vines onto an acre, producing much greater tonnages of grapes per acre.

Shallow riparian rootstock is also known to be much more vulnerable to disease because shallow-rooted vines are right at the depth where the deadly nematode likes them. This, in turn requires more pesticide.

The huge new vineyard ponds that have cropped up all over the County — which taken together capture more creek and river water than a large dam would — are an essential element of the wall-to-wall grape plantings in the recently developed, industrial vineyards. In fact, these new vineyards are designed not to conserve water but to require much more water — water that has become scarce everywhere on the Northcoast.

If you can produce wine grapes with pond water like you can keep an ICU patient alive with a drip, you can plant more grapes on steeper slopes, and in areas with drier climates, all the while demanding ever greater amounts of water.

In fact, drip irrigation, once thought of as a form of water conservation, has become the opposite — a cheap way to use cheap water to produce more grapes and make more money.

The above is a summary of what we’ve written before, which, until yesterday’s PD, you’d never read even a little about in the PD.

Frog Leap Vineyard Owner John Williams, referred to earlier, goes further. “The entire [Napa] valley was dry-farmed for 100 years until 1976, when the first drip irrigation systems were installed. When the vines have easy access to water, they do not have to push their roots down very far. … Look, vines aren’t stupid. If water is easily available, they won’t have deep roots.”

John Williams insists that wine quality is related to root depth, and deeper the roots are, the more likely the vine is to produce better quality at earlier dates.

“Dry farming is not just ‘not irrigating,’ it is a real skill,” says John Williams. “And an arduous process and it’s very complicated.”

John Williams may be engaging in a bit of self-promotion, but bless him for his courage in taking a stance for commonsense at odds with his rapacious industry. Most of the old Italians on the north coast dry farmed (as did, John Williams notes, most of Napa Valley did until 1976). Do you think those old Italians rubbed elbows with master sommeliers? Did they call themselves “viticulturists”? Did they hold their gleaming glasses to the sun and swirl and sip their Blood of Michoacan to get full flavor? Did they consult with Glen McGourty and his fellow industry-flaks at the UC Extension Service office before they planted a grapevine? Did they paw through the late UC Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s seminal wine book — “Hilgardia” — before they decided what and where to plant?

No, of course not. So dry-farming can’t be that “complicated” — although it’s probably more work than turning on the spigot.

But, that doesn’t take anything away from John Williams’ sharp remarks about drip irrigation. “Once a vineyard is established with an irrigation system,” John Williams said, “it’s hard to wean the plants off the drug. You can’t just turn the water off.”

(That’s partly because, as noted above, the newer rootstocks are designer-engineered to be more water dependent.)

John Williams added that the Napa Valley’s water use, just for irrigation alone (not counting frost protection), which Williams estimates is at least a billion gallons annually, comes from a quick calculation Williams made from a UC Davis report that estimates water needs for an acre of grapes — about 100 gallons of water per vine per year.

Multiply that by, say, 2500 vines per acre, and you’re up to around 250,000 gallons per acre per year. So that even your little 10 acre-vineyard would take 2.5 million gallons a year — not counting frost protection or bottling.

In these days of near-permanent drought, local grape growers could benefit greatly from John Williams (and our, ahem) advice about dry-farming, weaning their vineyards off the drip season by season — if it doesn’t get too dry too fast. But as long as local grape growers are themselves on a form of intellectual drip-irrigation from Glen McGourty and his pals at the UC-Extension Service wine braintrust, they’ll keep on squandering copious amounts of water and pesticides (and spring noise) and money as usual — never mind, even, their own long-term prospects.


  1. Tom April 21, 2015

    To me this looks like an expropriation, in that one group’s properties increase in value and another group’s properties decrease. It’s a taking.

  2. Pete April 28, 2015

    The entire premise of your opinion, that European vineyards are not “planted in the new industrial style which uses very narrow rows between the vines planted on every possible acre” is factually wrong.

    French vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy are almost uniformly “densely planted.” That is where the whole idea of “high density” vineyard planting came from. See, for example, this abstract:

    And a simple Google search of “high density planting, France” will retrieve multiple more articles.

    Oh, and the reason the French dry farm is that they get rain year round, including the summer months, thereby removing the need for irrigation during the growing season.

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