Peak Wine? Let Them Eat Cake

Sonoma County’s 40+ year love affair with grape alcohol may be on the rocks. Or is it time to pop a cork to celebrate the apex of high times in Wine Country?

It depends on whom you ask.

Writing for The Bohemian, Stephanie Hiller reports that Big Vineyards Face a Sustainability Gap in Sonoma County. Napa winederkind [sic] Joe Wagner’s proposal to build a huge new winery, distillery and events center at Dairyman ranch off Highway 12 near Sebastopol has led to a groundswell of opposition.

Does Wagner care?

Perhaps not so much. He’s likely too busy relocating his base of operations from climate-threatened Napa Valley to cooler climes in Sonoma County; or else celebrating Constellation Brands’ (NYSE: STZ) recent acquisition of his fast-growing Meiomi wine brand for a reported $315 million.

Wagner’s not alone. Mike Benzinger, owner of his family’s famously biodynamic and tourism-friendly operation, just sold out to low-price leader The Wine Group for upwards of $90 million in June. If this transition toward corporate control of Sonoma Valley boutique viticulture bothers you, you are encouraged to write your concerns on a piece of toilet paper and bury it in your backyard in a cow’s horn.

Then in July, compadre Bruce Cohn, blamed his unrelenting rope-providers at Bank of the West for having no choice but to sell out to Vintage Wine Estates for an as yet undisclosed amount. According to the Press Democrat, “It’s a really tough business. … It’s the most cash-intensive business I have ever seen,” Cohn said.

When local guys as solid as these cash in, the rest of us need to take a moment.

Benziger now joins several other esteemed brands we all know and love belonging to The Wine Group, including Franzia, Almaden and Corbett Canyon. Some of us are willing to wait to taste the next vintage.

VWE, the mega-holding company on the receiving end of the BR Cohn deal now owns 10 wine companies in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, including Clos Pegase, Girard, Viansa, Windsor Vineyards, Wine Sisterhood, Cosentino, Cartlidge & Browne, Sonoma Coast Vineyards and Ray’s Station. It sold 1.2 million cases in 2014, making it the 11th largest wine company on the North Coast, according to the North Bay Business Journal.

In spontaneous response (and yet seemingly out of nowhere) several new citizen groups have sprung up all across the four counties of the North Bay, petitioning local leaders to defend what distinguishes us from the ag-industrial sprawl that has transformed the Central Valley.

Sebastopol berry farmer, sustainability lecturer, and Vietnam veteran Shepherd Bliss asks, How “Sustainable” Is the Wine Industry in California’s Sonoma County? He’s offended by a recent major “sustainable” wine advertising campaign funded in part by US Federal and Sonoma County public funds. According to Dr. Bliss, it’s “classic propaganda with its biased, false, exaggerated, and misleading claims. Sustainability is not all economics; it must include ethics and truth-telling.”

In Coho vs. Pinot, noted reporter Will Parrish draws our attention to the drought-related “emergency order” in portions of four Russian River tributaries: Mill Creek, Mark West Creek, Green Valley Creek and Dutch Bill Creek. Parrish describes a public meeting punctuated by two men in a fistfight and a “deep well of resentment” regarding the long-standing preferential treatment many say state, county and even federal officials have accorded the powerful, multi-billion dollar regional wine industry.

Press Democrat reporter Guy Kovner documents local outrage over a published report that wine lobbiest Bob Anderson, representing the United Winegrowers of Sonoma County, had enlisted former Supervisor and current State Senator Mike McGuire to begin “quietly sponsoring” a bill many described as a “water grab”, while so many others are made to suffer through the drought. McGuire has since distanced, but not yet completely recused, himself from the debate.

David Keller, former Petaluma City Councilmember and and Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River, reminds us of other boom-bust cycles in our local agricultural history, and wonders what Sonoma County will be like After the Grapes are Gone.

And this isn’t just local neighborhood fence gossip. Major news outlets like the Los Angeles Times, KPIX TV,   The New York Times, and others have all picked up on the story of dry times and conflict in Wine County.

Are you not sure whom to trust as the wells are running dry?

Visit where your neighbors are speaking truth to power, and seeking partnerships with real local wine families who want to resist the corporate takeover of our beloved homeland.

Image credit: Âe du vin (“Soul of the Wine”), illustration for Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal


3 thoughts on “Peak Wine? Let Them Eat Cake”

  1. And on top of all that, the County is proposing to amend the General Plan so that big winery development can happen on the Sonoma Coast!

  2. “If there reasons are for the benefits of the consumers, it does not matter for me. As long as they continue producing great tasting wines.”

    [Editor’s note: This grammatically challenged and obviously self-serving commercial comment purportedly came from a “Sarah Dukes” at wine # clubs # .net (aka Wall Street Journal Wine Club). Conscientious wine consumers all over the globe know that, just like the Sonoma Valley natives who read and write this blog, no one should patronize corporations or wine clubs that don’t care about the ecological sustainability and resilience of our food-based communities.
    Visit for a list of wineries that do care.]

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