A new wine from enviros

Posted: Apr 18, 2003 12:00 AM

So many Americans are engaged in a boycott of French wine at the moment that some French importers are pressuring President Jacques Chirac to cry Uncle (Sam). But environmentalists, as ever, have different priorities than the rest of the country: They are busy protesting Napa Valley wine.

The picturesque trellised fields there make most people, especially anyone with a taste for cabernet, consider Northern California closer to heaven than any place on Earth since Eden. But the fields are maligned by greens as "alcohol farms," the environmentally catastrophic result of "the graping of the land."

Now, there's something amusing about sensitive liberals in one of the world's great bastions of progressive thinking warring among themselves. The stereotypical Northern California vineyard owner is a wealthy yuppie who appreciates the outdoors and the finer things and wants to live within an hour's drive of San Francisco, the Left Coast's left-most city. It must be discomfiting for him suddenly to be considered no better than a smoke-belching coal-plant operator.

But hold your amusement. California wine has, during the past couple of decades, become as American as baseball, apple pie, Budweiser and Jack Daniel's. The vineyards are threatened by an environmental extremism that can properly be considered part of -- together with smoking bans at bars, hamburger lawsuits and all the rest of it -- "A War on Anything You Might Happen to Find Pleasurable."

One charge against the vineyards -- some of which are built on the sides of slopes -- is that they might dump dirt into streams, fouling the water. It has happened occasionally. But the definitions of water pollution and of what constitutes a stream -- practically any rivulet of rain runoff -- have become maniacally broad.

Environmentalists complain that the vineyards are a monoculture, i.e., just one, ecologically sterile, crop. Although some of the newer vineyards have eaten into forests, most of them have replaced other monocultures, apple orchards and the like.

Finally, greens worry about endangered species. Heaven forbid that a mud puddle might be disturbed that provides a habitat to a vernal pool of fairy shrimp, but it is only by stretching the federal Endangered Species Act to the point of absurdity that vineyards can be portrayed as despoilers of the planet.

As the wine industry has boomed in Northern California in recent years (fueled by annoying Internet millionaires), an important shift in perception has taken place. Vineyards were once viewed as an alternative to tract housing and other nasty development, but now are themselves seen as nasty development.

That makes them vulnerable to every tool of harassment in the environmentalist arsenal: numerous lawsuits (the Sierra Club has sued the local government and growers), zealously applied federal regulations and ever-tightening local land-use and permitting rules.

Starting a vineyard is inherently dicey. It usually means borrowing a lot of money to buy land that costs about $100,000 an acre, and then it take years to get the vines growing high-quality grapes. On top of it all, now there's the expense of hiring lawyers, endangered-species specialists and perhaps fish biologists, and the risk of unplanned delays imposed by aggressive regulators.

"It has become a very involved legal, scientific and technical process that stretches over months and maybe years. It renders many properties potentially uncommercial," says Christopher Hermann, who heads the West Coast law firm Stoel Rives' wine-law group. (Yes, there is such a thing -- without it, unfortunately, vineyards wouldn't stand a chance.)

For vineyard opponents, putting property out of commission is the point. Some critics have taken to calling the growers "merchants of death," as if they're selling crack. They apparently haven't gotten the word that a glass of wine a day can help prevent heart disease, never mind pleasing the pallet and soothing the spirit.

Patriotic, common-sensical imbibers should have their marching orders: Boycott French wine to annoy Jacques Chirac and his countrymen. Drink Californian to annoy the enviro-weenies.