Whenever I hear someone whine that there are too many vineyards in Sonoma County, I find myself snapping back, “Thank God for the grapes.” It’s something I am saying more and more as vineyards come under attack by uninformed urbanites, misguided county leaders or the newly rural who envision an agricultural diversity reminiscent of Old MacDonald’s Farm. Please note: Old MacDonald went bankrupt years ago and moved to a trailer park in Idaho.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that wine grapes saved Sonoma County agriculture, arriving at a time when other crops and farm products were on the decline and farmers were in desperate need of a money-making crop. Today, we should all be reverentially thankful for our county’s 60,000 plus acres of vineyards that drive our economy and provide the scenic landscape that brings visitors from around the world. Those who chant “vineyards, vineyards everywhere” should know that only six percent of Sonoma County’s more than one million acres of land is planted to vines. Just a drop in the old wine barrel.
But those 60,000 plus acres of wine grapes account for more than two thirds of Sonoma County’s farm income, a number that multiplies many times when those grapes are turned into wine. The recent harvest was a vivid reminder of the wine industry’s dynamic force and widespread reach in Sonoma County. For weeks and weeks, trucks loaded with grapes trundled through cities and along the freeways to deliver the harvest to wineries. Even those living in suburbia witnessed Wine Country’s fall rite of passage.
During the late 1960s when other crops like apples, prunes and pears were in financial decline, wine grapes came along to give dedicated Sonoma County farmers like the late Robert Young and the late Warren Dutton a crop that would make money and keep them on their land. Even good farmers like Young and Dutton, who both became celebrated pioneers in the wine industry, knew they could go broke raising apples and prunes in a glutted market. As much as farmers love what they do, at the end of the day they have to earn a living. We have seen what happens to farmers who failed to adapt to the changing markets.
Wine grapes provide the financial model for the modern day version of Old MacDonald’s Farm, a piece of land where a hard-working family dedicated to quality grapes can earn income off 10 or 20 acres. Not so with prunes or pears.
Sonoma County would be a different place today if not for wine grapes and the profits they produce, which keeps land in agriculture, provides thousands of jobs and defines our food-and-wine lifestyle. It was visionary wine grape growers who led the effort for strict agricultural zoning to protect Sonoma County’s farmland from the piecemeal subdivisions that thwart real agricultural production. They were protecting their vineyards and what the world now considers a global treasure.
And make no mistake, wine grape growing is real dirt-under-the-fingernails agriculture despite those glitz and glamour wine wannabes who think and talk otherwise. Without the vineyards and the strong political will – and, yes, power – of the wine industry, Sonoma County would have been chopped into thousands of rural ranchettes where harried owners, holding full-time jobs in town to pay the mortgage, would tend a few head of livestock and waves of yellow star thistle. That would not propel the thriving agricultural industry we have today.
The wine industry leads the way for other agricultural producers – the artisan cheese makers and specialty crop farmers – who craft the chevre and the perfect peaches that we pair with an Alexander Valley cab or crisp Russian River chardonnay. The wine industry needs the dirt farmers and food artisans – and the foodies need the wine folks – to keep the promise that Sonoma County is California’s premier food and wine region. Joy Sterling, the doyenne of her family’s Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, likes to say that one word describes Sonoma County: foodandwine. And indeed it does.
So a grand toast to the vineyards preserving Sonoma County’s farming heritage in a land that famed plant wizard Luther Burbank described as the chosen spot of all the earth. Thank God for the grapes.