As the Director of Merchant Banking at America's most politically well-connected investment firm, Goldman Sachs, Henry L. Cornell is accustomed to reaping the benefits of political oligarchy. (Webster definition: “a government in which a small group exercises control, especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.”) His company exerts a profound influence in the corridors of both national and global power, not only by shaping legislation to the benefit of the interlocking financial, real estate, and investment industries, but by helping set the rules under which policy battles are waged in the first place. The multi-trillion dollar 2008 bailout of the banking industry, authored by then-Treasury Secretary and former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson, is only the most famous example.
As with the US in general, the County of Sonoma is controlled by a disproportionately small group of people. On the whole, their purposes are selfish and corrupt. Whereas the political oligarchy that calls the shots nationally consists mainly of representatives of the financial, real estate, hydrocarbon, military-industrial, and agribusiness sectors, the oligarchs who set the overall agenda at 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa, are primarily representatives of a single business: wine.
Corrupt? Virtually all of Sonoma County's pertinent regulatory agencies function as handmaidens to large corporations like Kendall-Jackson and Gallo Family Wines, as well as to somewhat smaller industrial viticulture firms like Robert Young Vineyards, former employer of County Supervisor Paul Kelley.
Selfish? In its narrow drive to convert grapes into dollars with the greatest possible speed, the wine enterprise has clearcut vast sections of forest, sucked dry entire creeks and streams, reduced the once mighty Russian River to a trickle during many springs and summers, helped drive the river's trout and salmon populations nearly to extinction, pumped countless tons of pesticides and herbicides into those same watersheds, destroyed tens of thousands of acres of riparian animal habitat, and recontoured dozens of mountain ridgetops to plant grapes in desired high-elevation microclimates, in the West Coast equivalent of the coal industry's strip-mining of the Appalachian Range. All these activities are wholly dependent on migrant laborers, who the industry heavily exploits.
The tragic, stranger-than-fiction story of Henry Cornell's own vineyard and proposed wine production factory, which cling to a steep southeastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains, roughly seven miles northeast of Santa Rosa, reads as a distilled version of the relentless pursuit of the grape dollar by Sonoma County at large.
Cornell purchased his 120-acre parcel, which lies at the north fork of Mark West Creek, in 1999. It was a heady time for California's enterprising viticulturists. Backed by some of the largest banking interests in San Francisco and New York, as well those of Napa and Paris, they planted vast corduroy-like rows across the hills and terraces of the north and central coasts, in what has become known as the premium “grape rush.” The unprecedented planting binge could only have coincided with the larger economic bubbles then feverishly gripping Northern California's business and managerial classes: the high-tech and real estate booms.
At 26 acres (and growing), the imperiously titled Cornell Summit Vineyards is relatively small compared to the wine-grape mega-plantations of, say, the Gallo family or Jess Jackson, who respectively own thousands of acres of monocrop alcohol farms across Sonoma County's 13 officially designated American Viticultural Areas, not to mention in many other areas of the state. Because of its location in this highly fragile watershed, however, the Goldman-Sachs executive's vineyard has been an unmitigated disaster on par with some of the largest industrial viticulture operations.
Prior to Cornell's arrival, Mark West Creek was struggling to survive a perpetual onslaught that began with the conquest of the aboriginal Pomo by European settlers in the early 1800s. A succession of extractive industries have wrought a severe toll on this once mighty tributary to the Russian River ever since. The creek was the site of California's first power-operated commercial sawmill, established in 1834 by John Cooper, brother-in-law of the famous Spanish comandante Mariano Vallejo. Further timber, as well as commercial fishing and agribusiness ventures, followed. However, none of these industries caused nearly as much damage, or at least not nearly as quickly, as the handful of vineyards that set up shop adjacent to the creek in the '90s and early-2000s.
Until quite recently, Mark West Creek still enjoyed some of the strongest perennial flows of any comparable waterway on the California North Coast. At the time, the Russian River remained known for its prodigious runs of Steelhead trout, in particular, as well as Coho and Chinook salmon — all endangered species. According to Dr. Stacy Li, a retired salmon and Steelhead ecologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Russian River inherently depends on the health of Mark West Creek.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, if you said Steelhead, the first thing that came to mind was the Russian River,” Li says. “And when the Russian River was a world-renowned fishery, Mark West probably was the major contributor to supplying the Russian River in general. I have not seen abundances that high anywhere else in California.”
That was then, and this is now.
Modern industrial viticulture is incredibly water-intensive. With the encouragement of their academic confederates at the University of California, Davis, the corporate grape growers that predominate in Sonoma County devote virtually all their land to production from shallow-rooted grape varieties — as distinct from the deep-rooted strains cultivated by the dry farmers of yesteryear. The shallow roots lend themselves to more effective applications of pesticides, as well as to denser (read: more profitable) plantings. They also require near-constant irrigation.
In the cool climes of the California North Coat, wine-grapes further siphon off vast amounts of water for protection from frost damage. In simpler times, growers prevented the winter chill from harming new bud growth by pruning at the proper time of year and in the correct sections of the vines. In the past several decades, however, automated frost protection has entirely replaced these hands-on methods, mainly in the form of overhead sprinklers that sprawl out across each row of grapes, dowsing them with a continuous coat of irrigated water, night after night, right up until the last frost date of late-spring.
To make matters worse, a rapidly expanding number of Sonoma County vineyards have been planted on steep slopes and at high elevations. In part, that's because valley floors are already saturated with the grapes planted during the somewhat less reckless span of the '70s and '80s, when the modern California wine industry was first emerging. It's also because consumer preferences have shifted to encompass more high-end wines that often grow best in cooler microclimates.
Naturally, these mountain vineyards command a massive amount of frost protection water. They also tend to generate huge loads of sediment that wash down the steep gradients into surrounding water basins, destroying anadromous fish habitat by filling in spawning grounds, or else uprooting trees and consequently raising water temperatures to the point of making the water uninhabitable. That's not to mention the harm that results from the grading process that precedes the vineyard plantings.
All told, mountaintop vineyards are about as ecologically harmful as agribusiness — if it can even be called that — gets.
* * *
Even before Cornell's arrival, the mountains above Mark West Creek were becoming saturated with wine-grape acreage owned by corporate executives, eager to luxuriate in an ongoing period of sustained upward wealth redistribution which has produced record profits for companies like Goldman-Sachs, and, for its executives like Henry Cornell, record bonuses.
One of the Cornell estate's immediate neighbors, located one-half mile upstream, is Pride Vineyards. Developed in the late-1990s by the scion of a multi-million dollar dentistry consulting business based in Novato, Pride has 83 acres of wine-grapes officially under cultivation. It has also planted an unknown number of additional acres without bothering to gain regulatory approval — an illegal action detected by neighbors who flew over in a private plane two years ago.
Another vineyard, with nearly 100 acres planted to grapes, spans the Spring Mountain ridgetop southwest of the Cornell property, at the address of 6200 St. Helena Road. It is owned by Detroit transplant Fred Fisher, an heir to the General Motors fortune. The vineyard lies adjacent to Van Buren Creek, a Mark West tributary.
Then there's Cornell Summit Vineyards, which began operation in 2001-02. Five additional smaller vineyards round out the regional terroir.
Mark West Creek, such as it still exists, emerges out of the Mayacamas Mountains, a range that stretches across some 50 miles of southern Mendocino County and the Sonoma-Napa county line, dividing the headwaters of the Russian River and Clear Lake. The creek drops out of the mountains on a winding route through the hills east of the Sonoma County airport, under Highway 101 south of Airport Boulevard, and then west of Forestville, before bending and running parallel to River Road. It joins the Russian River east of the once-aptly named Steelhead Beach Regional Park.
The creek is blessed with a succession of small flat pools, ideal for rearing juvenile fish. These are intermittently accompanied by steep cascades. Taken as a whole, the creek acts as sort of a 20-mile-long stepladder descending into the Russian River, comprising one of the most ideal stretches of migratory fish habitat in California.
The Mayacamas are this spring-fed creek's natural recharge area. A fractured-bedrock aquifer lies beneath the range, dispensing water through pores formed by discontinuities in the subsurface rock. When the groundwater level drops below these pores, the aquifer ceases to dispense — the creek dries up.
As a matter of official policy, the County of Sonoma regards the protection of Mark West Creek as a foremost priority. The County's General Plan 2020 designates it as one of a small handful of “high-priority conservation areas” meaning that all developments must meet far stricter standards than normal with regard to their impact on the surrounding ecology.
At least, that's how the law is written. Enforcement of it, particularly vis-a-vis the regional wine juggernaut, has proved to be another matter. Indeed, Sonoma County's official decision makers have enthusiastically facilitated the Mark West watershed's destruction at every step of the way, in blatant contradiction of their own official policies. To the extent that the creek has been salvaged at all, it has been because of local residents' efforts to defend it.
The Attack of ‘a New York City Banker Boss’
One of Casey Caplinger's neighbors has described him as a “tenacious bulldog, who's clamped onto the back of Henry Cornell's pants leg and keeps getting spun around but refuses to let go.” A lifelong resident of Sonoma County, Caplinger moved to his current residence, immediately downstream of the Cornell property, in 1998.
An arborist by profession, Caplinger has the rugged appearance of a seasoned mountain man, complete with scraggly long brown hair and a furry goatee. He describes himself as an ocean diver, fisherman, mountain explorer, and bow hunter.
Upon moving to his land at the Mark West headwaters, Caplinger gained a new admiration for the tenacious salmonoids who continuously overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to find mates and reproduce in the waters off St. Helena Road. Having elected to make every effort to defend the health of the creek, he began regularly documenting the condition of the salmon and trout which spawned in the section of it running through his property.
When I meet Caplinger, he was clad in a “Homeland Security — Fighting Terrorism Since 1513” shirt, which bears a picture of the Apache icon Geronimo and three fellow shotgun-toting American Indian freedom fighters. He also wears a baseball cap with an American Indian insignia.
“I come from a military family,” Caplinger says, “and we're not going to stand down in the face of this attack by a New York City banker boss.”
Immediately after Cornell Summit Vineyards cleared the land for its first grape planting in 2001, Caplinger noticed the water level drop and the creek run redder with the silt that washed into the water basin as a result of the deforestation. As the salmon and trout swam upstream for their winter runs, they were having a harder time digging spawning grounds because the clean gravel that had previously formed the creekbed was so filled in with sediment.
The fish were not merely dying; they were being killed. And the killers were located directly upstream.
Cornell's project managers were busy “piecemealing” their project into completion; that is, skirting around a cumulative assessment of the vineyard and winery by submitting only one portion of it for review and approval at a time. In fact, in the finest tradition of the North Coast wine industry, Cornell's project managers have bothered to gain legal approval for their activities only when absolutely necessary.
(Even one of the North Coast wine enterprise's greatest boosters — Glen McGourty of the University of California Cooperative Extension program, Mendocino and Lake County branches — has compared the industry's sporadic interest in abiding by relevant laws to that of the local marijuana trade. Though, if anything, that's unfair to the pot farmers.)
The Cornell project team began their push for regulatory approval, such as it was, in 2000. Project manager Guy Davis of the euphemistically named Davis Family Farms in Healdsburg submitted a Timber Harvest Plan (THP) to the California Department of Forestry (CDF). The plan centered on a 30 acre proposed clearcut on a steep southeastern slope near the 140-acre parcel's summit.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board's (NCRWQCB) on-site inspector, a watershed engineer named Cherie Blatt, noted in her report that removing the trees and grading the land would potentially lead to a landslide, due to the site's steep grades and potentially unstable soil structure. Subsequently, Cornell's people learned that the California Department of Forestry (CDF) planned to deny them a permit and withdrew their THP application. It would have been a rare instance of CDF rebuffing a proposal to cut trees.
The Cornell team felled the trees anyway.
Less than a year later, Cornell's people submitted a second proposal to CDF. Blatt conducted another inspection, this time recommending that CDF issue Cornell Summit Vineyards a violation for deforesting the property without a permit. Amazingly, the Cornell team had already cleared a total of 24 acres for grapes without gaining regulatory approval, on an average grade of 27%, in brazen disregard for Blatt's warning about geological instability.
In spite of the misgivings reflected in Blatt's report and the fact that Cornell was blatantly thumbing his nose at the law, CDF approved the harvest plan.
With each subsequent clearing of forest and vegetation by Cornell and, further upstream, Pride Vineyards, Caplinger assiduously shared the damage he was observing with neighbors. Among them were Laura and Ray Waldbaum of Wappo Lane, transplants from suburban Los Angeles circa 2002. Mrs. Waldbaum had played an instrumental role in the successful campaign to preserve Upper Newport Bay in southern California in the 1990s. She joined Caplinger in collecting information on water level, temperature, and nitrates. Between 2000 and 2003, the depth of the creek bed increased by a staggering three to four feet on average.
“Each year, as the vineyards up at Cornell increased in size, the summer flows were decreasing radically, and the winter flows were turning into huge torrents,” Waldbaum says. “The sediments were increasing in the creek bottom. When we took our measurements, the spawning pools were filling in every year.”
The amount of sediment in the creek would increase once again by three to four feet from 2004 to 2008. The destruction of Mark West Creek by the vineyards has continued unabated.
Meanwhile, in late-2003, the Cornell project team added a new wrinkle. They submitted a plan to construct a 13,480 square foot wine production factory (“winery”), the proposed size of which later expanded to 18,670 square feet, along with a series of underground storage “caves” of 10,750 square feet.
Most California vineyards and other agribusinesses are exempt from environmental impact review under the terms of the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). One of the main exceptions is cases involving zoning changes, such as a timber to vineyard conversion. Otherwise, approval of vineyards is regarded as a “ministerial,” or merely a clerical matter, rather than a “discretionary” one to be determined upon the review of a regulatory agency. Accordingly, there is little recourse for those pledged to working “within the system” to combat the destruction by the wine industry.
Wineries, however, are subject to a modicum of technical review as well as opportunities for public input. Under the terms of CEQA, if a so-called “local lead agency” determines that a winery has the potential to cause “significant environmental impact” — and the emphasis here is on the potential — then they must submit an Environmental Impact Review.
In Sonoma County, the “local lead agency” is the perennially developer-friendly Permit and Resources Management Department's (PRMD) Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA). The BZA tots up 5-0 votes with perhaps even greater consistency than the Anderson Valley School Board. Its members are appointed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, a majority of whom are deeply beholden to the wine industry. As a result, Sonoma County has never required that a proposed winery undergo an environmental impact review; amazingly, not a single one of these facilities has ever had so much as the potential to cause “significant environmental impact” in any way — so sayeth the BZA. That's not even to bring up the possibility that the BZA would vote down a winery outright.
The BZA approved the Cornell Winery proposal on a 5-0 vote in January 2005.
Caplinger and Waldbaum gathered their opposition to the winery. First, they formed an organization called New-Old Ways Wholistically Emerging (NOWWE) with the idea of mounting a more concerted challenge to Cornell. Then, Caplinger paid out of pocket to hire experts in biology, hydrology, and geology to review the winery proposal and document the damage the vineyards had already caused; essentially, to do the job the county government had abrogated by approving the project absent of any substantive environmental assessment.
With help from Forestville attorney Kimberly Burr, NOWWE secured a review from some state and federal agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries division. “We are deeply concerned about degrading habitat quality in Mark West Creek from cumulative development activities such as water supply development and fine sediment generation from grading activities,” the NOAA assessment stated.
Among those who also provided technical assistance was Laura Waldbaum's husband, Ray.
Ray Waldbaum is an improbable person to have the label of dangerous subversive attached to his name. A long-time geologist of high professional standing, he has more than four decades of experience in both public and private positions. Those include over a dozen years at the County of Los Angeles, as well as many more in the decidedly non-environmentalist capacity of geological consultant to developer subdivisions in southern California.
Yet, for the simple reason that he insists on applying the same professional standards to geological assessments in Sonoma County as he has in other instances throughout his career (indeed, as the standards of the profession call for in the official literature), Waldbaum is regarded by the regional geotechnical establishment as being, in his words, “radioactive” — someone who local geologists dare not associate with, for fear of professional reprisal.
Not coincidentally, the wine industry is perhaps the main employer of the region's geotechnical industry.
In preparation for its rubber-stamp by the Sonoma County BZA, Cornell hired the local firm RGH Geotechnical, a company with an established history of whitewashing reports on behalf of the county's dominant economic sector (RGH even features a picture of a vineyard as its front-page website graphic). In spite of an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating the presence of a landslide precisely where Cornell proposed to build the winery, much of it housed on clearly delineated geological maps housed at the PRMD's own office, the firm's reviewers concluded that no geological instability was present there.
Waldbaum was dumbfounded. As he later wrote in one of the reports for NOWWE, “Of all the sites I have come into contact with in my 41+ year career, none matches the description of '...evidence of prior landslide activity' specifically mentioned in ICGS Special Publication 117A more than the Cornell Wine Factory site.”
Waldbaum's report is further peppered with passages with like this one: “RGH shows on Plate 2 a landslide whose headscarp coincides with the ridgeline where the Wine Factory is proposed for construction, yet derives the incredible finding that the ridge line is stable.”
In mid-2005, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors conducted a hearing concerning the Cornell Winery. They were legally mandated to do so after NOWWE appealed the BZA's rubber-stamp approval of it. County Planning Director Swede Swedenborg, the lead reviewer in the case, was required to make a presentation supporting the position that no landslide was present at the site of Cornell's proposed wine factory.
Swedenborg's main piece of evidence was a zoomed-out regional map of the San Francisco Bay Area, which details soil types and topography. This map had no relevance whatsoever to the Cornell property's geologic features.
By now, Waldbaum was hopping mad. This was a blatant fraud, perpetrated on the public by an unlicensed geologist in direct contravention of, well, not just of professional geology standards, but the ethics that any ostensible public servant is pledged to uphold. Waldbaum reported Swedenborg to the State Board Of Registration For Geologists which came back with a written reprimand and warning sanctioning her for Unlicensed Practice of Geology.
“It's like the medical board cracking down on a bad doctor,” Waldbaum says by way of putting the reprimand in perspective. “And how often do you see that? Not often.”
The County demoted Swedenborg from her position as Planning Supervisor soon thereafter.
Waldbaum also reported RGH's reviewers to the State Board, which similarly issued a written reprimand and warning for their substandard practices related to the Cornell project. Then, for good measure, the State Department of Water Resources admonished them for the shoddy work they conducted on the water availability aspect of their Cornell report.
Suddenly, Cornell's project managers and their clubby associates in the County bureaucracy were in a bind. All three of the technical people on whose work the winery's approval was based had been renounced at the highest level of their profession. Ignoring this inconvenient turn of events might have appeared a bit too untoward even by Sonoma County's standards — especially in court.
Without a word, Cornell temporarily withdrew the application to build the winery in preparation for a rewrite.
A few months later, as if on cue, the slope below the house and septic system on the prospective Cornell winery building site failed. Heavy rains had activated the landslide that Sonoma County's planning staff and Cornell's lapdog geotechnical reviewers adamantly maintained did not exist. The soil that had previously been held in place by clusters of oaks and doug firs washed into the creek basin for days afterward. Upwards of 10,000 cubic yards was thus deposited in Mark West Creek according to the estimates of inspectors from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The sediment was so thick that Casey Caplinger resorted to breaking up mounds of it at a time on his property with a pick-ax. A die-off of some of the last remaining fish in the creek had occurred.
The antithesis of Henry Cornell's winery estate is Ranchero Mark West: a 122-acre redwood forest with accompanying 10-acre commercial Christmas tree farm located at 7125 St. Helena Dr. When Jim Doerksen purchased the property in 1967, it was badly damaged by more than a century of logging, ranching, and wine-grape production. Only about 30 acres were forested. The rest was grass, aged fruit orchards, and a tangle of brush where old vineyards had been.
In stark contrast to Sonoma County's dominant trend toward conversion of forestland to wine-grape production, Doerksen meticulously removed all of the standing vines, as well as the shrubs and other fruit trees, and replaced them with redwood trees. By his own estimate, he and his wife Betty have planted over one million Sequoias sempervirens in the past 43 years — some of which have survived, most of which did not.
Doerksen, 71, had no previous forestry experience. Rather, he learned through trial and error how best to restore his land to its previously forested state. Today, the average growth of a tree in the Doerksen forest is greater than an inch in diameter a year — a vivid reminder of the fact that California's largest redwood trees, prior to the 1860s, were located in the Russian River Valley. Visitors from the American Forestry Foundation say that the Doerksens are growing more timber per acre than anyone they know.
If any resident along Mark West Creek has the credibility to speak out about the well-being of the watershed, it's Jim Doerksen.
Doerksen is quick to tout the iron-clad relationship between healthy watersheds and healthy redwood forests — a link that members of the wine industry's intelligentsia refute in classes they teach at Sonoma State University and at UC Davis. Redwood trees' roots are extremely efficient at enhancing groundwater retention in local ecosystems. The trees also capture fog that drifts in from the ocean, causing it to drip out onto the ground, where much of it enters streams and creeks.
“Whenever you have redwood trees, you are sitting in a sea of water,” says Doerksen. “There's been a pile of studies on that. My friend Dr. [William J.] Libby, who was the head of forestry at Berkeley for 42 years, has done one of those analyses. He's been in Geneva working with the United Nations on exactly what I'm talking about.”
One does not have to travel far to find an example. Ranchero Mark West includes 4,000 feet of creek frontage. In the 1980s, the California Department of Fish & Game conducted a long-term study of Mark West Creek fishery habitat and concluded that the stretch running through the Doerksens' ranch was perhaps the most ideal spawning area for Coho salmon in all of Sonoma County.
At first, when Caplinger approached Doerksen about getting involved in the campaign to stop the vineyards ravaging the watershed upstream, he paid little heed. “I told myself it couldn't be that serious,” he concedes. “But it turned out to be that serious.”
Doerksen leads me to the southeastern end of his house, where he has annual rainfall totals written on a wall in his laundry room dating back more than 20 years. The realization that his beloved creek was dying and that he was doing little to prevent it remains clearly etched in his mind.
In 2006, Doerksen's rain gauge recorded a whopping 98 inches of precipitation. Yet, the recorded water level in Mark West Creek declined by more than half.
“At that point, I had to get involved,” he says. “Because one more vineyard would kill it — we would end up with a dry creek.”
With the same zeal he applied to his yeoman forestry work, Doerksen set out to stop the Cornell Winery project in its tracks. He was, he admits, not entirely prepared for what was in store for him. “When I got involved in this, I thought I was just getting involved in defending my creek. And that's still what I want to do, but there's obviously much more to it.”
Before long, Doerksen had compiled a subject file as extensive as any collection housed in Sonoma County's privately-funded wine industry division of the Healdsburg Public Library.
Besides knowing his forestry, Doerksen worked as a hydrologist at the City of Santa Clara prior to moving to Ranchero Mark West. Owing to this background, Doerksen worked with NOWWE and other organizations to mount a full frontal assault on the wine industry's rapacious water consumption.
In recent years, the industry's reckless drawdown of watersheds has become its most salient feature. In 2008 and 2009, federal regulators documented large die-offs of salmon and trout, which are ostensibly protected under the 1970 Endangered Species Act, in the Russian River mainstem running through Hopland, as well as at Felta Creek, a tributary of Dry Creek outside of Healdsburg. All of it had occurred as a result of diversions for frost protection by local vineyards. Stricter regulations concerning water usage, which the industry is attempting to ward off by way of intense lobbying, have been looming ever since.
In 2007, vast sections of Mark West Creek went entirely dry in late-summer. Local residents, including Doerksen, were devastated.
Meanwhile, Pride Vineyards' wells, which I’ve heard are roughly 1,200 feet deep, ran dry. In a scene that has become familiar to neighbors of feckless vineyard owners all throughout the North Coast, Pride began trucking in water. As many as 20 times a day, 3,500 gallon water trucks rumbled up and down St. Helena Road during the peak irrigation months of 2007 followed by much the same pattern in 2008.
At first, the company was purchasing the water from the City of Santa Rosa. The water trucks obtained water siphoned directly from a Santa Rosa fire hydrant. Yet, for much of 2008, the City officially required that residents cut back on household water use by 35%, due to drought conditions. The contradiction was so blatant that Doerksen was able to interest one of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's writers in reporting on the story. As soon as the reporter called a representative at Pride to discuss the matter, the water trucking from the city stopped and Pride began hauling from a private source.
It was a demonstration of what the New York Times Corporation-operated Press Democrat might accomplish if it ceased operating as the wine industry's public relations arm, which is about as likely to happen as the New York Times running a serious investigation of the systematic looting of the US Treasury by Wall Street bankers.
Meanwhile, Pride had cleared another large section of forest on their land to expand its vineyard. The expansion is located just off St. Helena Road, though hidden from view by what the timber industry commonly refers to as a “beauty strip”: a narrow band of trees that creates the visual illusion that a dense forest lies beyond. Because of their wells running dry, Pride has abandoned the expansion.
For their part, the Cornell Winery team also experienced considerable headaches from having sucked the watershed dry. Under the terms of the County's General Plan 2020, Cornell was required in its winery proposal to abide by a checklist of more than 30 criteria for demonstrating that it would not harm the watershed. It would be impossible to do so, however, without giving lie to the idea that enough water remained in the ground to support the operation of a wine factory.
The Cornell people had to get creative if they were to manufacture the appearance of abiding by the General Plan criteria. So Henry Cornell began buying up adjacent properties — seven of the eight located on his road, in all, and nearly all at a favorable price.
Ironically, a Goldman Sachs executive had personally bid up the cost of Sonoma County's already hyper-inflated real estate.
Next, Cornell placed one of these properties into a conservation easement. Therefore, his project managers claimed, that particular property would no longer use any water. In doing so, it would offset whatever water the wine factory uses, resulting in no net impact on the watershed. Thus, the Cornell Winery was exempt from the checklist provision. In effect, Henry Cornell was skirting around local regulations by conducting a “water swap,” while systemically buying people out of his neighborhood in a manner somewhat akin to a mafia don.
The most revealing episode of the drawn-out saga over Cornell's serial winery applications was yet to come. By 2008, the case against the facility was overwhelming. NOWWE, Doerksen, and other local residents had compiled reams of documentation concerning its destructive potential, as well as the collective harm the wine industry had already caused their watershed. Experts from NOAA, the Department of Fish and Game, and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board had weighed in expressing strong misgivings about it. Not to mention the fact that the winery had already caused a horribly damaging landslide, despite not even having been built.
One of the regulators who had surveyed the damage the facility had caused, Paul Keiran of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, noted in a 2008 inspection of the condition of the watershed that “all of the springs that discharge to the creek were flowing on the southern bank of the creek; all of the springs on the northern bank (Saint Helena Road side) were completely dry.” The springs on the northern bank are contiguous to the Pride and Cornell vineyards.
Under pressure, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors had required PRMD to conduct a peer review of the previous geological reports Cornell had commissioned by RGH Geotechnical, the company whose reviewers the State Board of Geologists had reprimanded at Ray Waldbaum's prompting. Cornell selected a national firm with local offices in Santa Rosa called Kleinfelder.
Kleinfelder's Northern California office, like RGH Geotechnical, has a long and mutually beneficial association with the wine industry. As one illustration of Kleinfelder's cozy relationship with Sonoma County's dominant business concern, the company's former Senior Project Manager for Northern California, Tom Adams, now works as a director of Premier Pacific Vineyards (PPV) of Napa County — the largest corporation specializing in vineyard development in the United States.
The “impartial peer reviewer” Kleinfelder assigned to the Cornell Winery case was William McCormick, who boasts one of the more interesting histories in his field. One of McCormick's mentors, whose name is Murray Levish, is one of the few geologists whose license the State Board has revoked based on what they describe as “negligent and incompetent practice.”
McCormick follows in much the same tradition. In one high-profile case reported on by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (and it is far from the only one in which McCormick has played a controversial role), he was cited by the State Board of Registration for Geologists for his work on a Wine Country-oriented Healdsburg hotel complex in 2008. The normally staid State Board wrote that “there are a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the report certified by Mr. McCormick that constitute negligence and/or incompetence, specifically as it relates to presentation of basic geologic data, geologic interpretations, public safety and geologic hazards associated with slope stability and active faulting, and exposure to naturally occurring asbestos materials.”
The Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) hearing to reconsider the Cornell Winery proposal took place in October 2008. That same day, the Press Democrat featured a story with a particular focus on the Doerksens' opposition to Cornell, which helped spur an excellent turnout by local residents. Roughly 50 people spoke during the public comment period. Among them was Stephan C. Volker, one of the hardest hitting environmental attorneys in California, who NOWWE had hired to review the case in advance of the hearing.
Following the public comment period, geologist McCormick strode to the front of the meeting room. He was not scheduled to speak but insisted on doing so. Not knowing quite how to respond, the members of the BZA opted not to interrupt him.
He promptly launched into an angry tirade. Many of his comments were directed personally at Ray Waldbaum.
McCormick was brandishing a poster. It turned out to be a geologic map of the Waldbaum’s property.
McCormick spewed forth a condemnation of Ray Waldbaum's hypocrisy, being that the Waldbaum clan had purchased a house on a documented landslide site, yet Ray had the audacity to criticize the Cornell winery proposal on the grounds that it, too, is on a landslide.
Presumably, McCormick was unable to construct a credible case in favor of the Cornell Winery proposal based on the available geologic evidence, so he opted instead for an ad hominem attack against the project's persistent geologic monkeywrencher: Waldbaum.
The audience — including the Board of Zoning Adjustments, opponents of the winery, and the Cornell winery staff, who presumably had no prior indication as to McCormick's now plainly evident emotional instability — looked on, initially in stunned silence.
The BZA's chairman at the time, whose name is Dick Fogg, took a stab at lightening the mood. “Okay, we get it: You're not going to be playing golf with Ray Waldbaum,” he offered.
McCormick's hysterical rant continued.
“By this point, everyone's laughing at him,” Laura Waldbaum recalls. “He's even more mad. He still won't sit down.”
She continues, “Now, here's these Board of Zoning Adjustment guys. Their own geologist is just melting down. They've got Steve Volker making this case. Fifty people have been up there. They're clearly thinking, 'Oh, man, we're supposed to approve this. Now what do we do?'”
The BZA's response was even more revealing than McCormick's temper tantrum.
The Board announced a 15 minute recess. They scurried outside into the contiguous parking lots. Many of them paced frantically while talking on their cell phones. With whom they were privately consulting, at this moment of crisis during the midst of an ostensibly public hearing, remains unclear.
Ray Waldbaum summed up: “They were like cockroaches running around when you turn on the light in the garage.”
Shortly after returning from the break, the BZA announced that the public portion of the hearing was over. They were postponing further consideration on the winery, Chairman Dick Fogg assured, until a later date. In lieu of their legally mandated meeting protocol, which involves an open question-and-answer session, Fogg asked that the attendees submit their questions in writing, which they would ensure that “PRMD staff” would respond to in fewer than 10 days.
“PRMD staff” means David Hardy, the planning supervisor who replaced Swede Swedenborg following Ray Waldbaum's complaint against her to the Board of Registration for Geologists. Hardy never did respond to any of the questions.
Nevertheless, the rescheduled hearing did take place a few weeks later. The BZA took the highly unusual step of opting not to recommend the Cornell project for approval — a project they had voted unanimously in favor of four years prior, when it was put before them in only slightly different form. Instead, they recommend that the project relocate to a different site on the Cornell property.
The level of corruption on display would all be comical, were it not so tragic.
Another BZA Rubber-Stamp
As the struggle over the winery dragged on into 2009 and 2010, the damage continued to be done. In spite of late spring rains, Mark West Creek ran dry this year in early June — roughly a month earlier than in 2009, when it ran dry a month earlier than it had in 2008.
Most fingerlings in the creek quickly died from the heat. A living fish was nowhere to be found. The only trickle of water in the north fork was that running through the Doerksens' property, most likely due to the water fixed in the ground by the redwood forest they have so carefully nursed into abundance.
NOWWE continued compiling reports from experts. For their part, the Doerksens kept up a relentless schedule of meeting with public officials in an effort to gain restrictions on vineyard and winery development.
In one case, Jim Doerksen and fellow St. Helena Road resident Steve Krimmel, a long-time defense attorney specializing in death penalty cases, met with staff members of the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), of which the Board of Zoning Adjustments is a division. At the meeting, PRMD Director Pete Parkinson informed them that he thinks the Environmental Impact Reviews mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act should be generally discarded. One of Sonoma County Counsel's deputy attorneys agreed.
“At least Steve and I came out of that meeting knowing exactly where they stand,” Doerksen says.
The latest display of where Sonoma County's public officials stand occurred this past September, when the Board of Zoning Adjustments finally got around to approving the latest iteration of the Cornell Winery proposal. More than a dozen residents spoke, along with an ensemble of representatives from Cornell. Cornell's vintner, Guy Davis, presented a litany regarding how he and Cornell had bent over backwards to appease the dogmatic environmentalists. It should be noted that Davis, who doubles as the chief vintner of a family-owned winery in Healdsburg, is the former director of marketing for the multi-national wine conglomerate Kendall-Jackson — perhaps the single most powerful corporation in Sonoma County.
The basis of the Cornell ensemble's proposal was that, since they had selected a new area on the parcel for the winery, none of the complaints levied by the environmentalists concerning the previous section of the land a mere stone's throw away were valid. Davis focused almost entirely on the measures they are taking — most notably the aforementioned conservation easement and a rainwater catchment tank — regarding which they provided no data — to ensure no impact on the watershed.
Remarkably, they referred to the late-2005 landslide they had obviously caused as “a naturally occurring landslide” of which, they said, there were “more than 200 in Sonoma County.” The BZA's representatives accepted these assertions on their face — or, at least, that was how they treated the matter in public.
Among those who spoke at the hearing was the defense attorney Steve Krimmel. “In a sane system, those people would be looking at prison time,” Krimmel said of the Cornell project managers, as well as many of Sonoma County's grape growers in general on the day after the hearing.
He continued, “In my profession, I've dealt with perjurious professionals and crazy people who I represented for years at a time. Before that, I worked for three years at an investment firm in San Diego, which was an experience of corporate America at its worst. But this experience involving Cornell and the Sonoma County PRMD has impacted me in terms of my concern about the future much more than anything before. What I have seen in the Cornell Winery process convinces me that we don't have a future.”
* * *
At this point, it seems unlikely that the Cornell Winery will ever actually be constructed. Only weeks prior to the latest BZA rubberstamp of Cornell, an application by Kendall-Jackson to build a new winery in Knights Valley — site of a wealthy enclave off of Highway 128 east of Healdsburg — led to the first-ever decision by a local judge to require a Sonoma County alcohol production factory to file an exhaustive Environmental Impact Review. The judge granted every motion filed by the citizens group that opposes the winery, the Maacama Watershed Alliance. The wine industry regards this as an ominous precedent.
As for the Cornell Winery proposal, NOWWE has formally appealed the BZA's ruling. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will now conduct a hearing about it on January 25, 2011. No doubt, the SoCo Supes will unanimously support the winery's construction; their role within the larger power structure of Sonoma County, an American banana republic of wine-grapes, demands nothing less of them.
In response, the steadfast Casey Caplinger and NOWWE are likely to file a lawsuit. They have attorney Steve Volker on retainer, who, in the words of Ray Waldbaum, “kicks ass” in court. Steve Krimmel may also file a civil suit on behalf of the residents along Mark West in an attempt to recover damages, which they would use solely for whatever creek restoration efforts are possible given that the vineyards that caused most of the damage in the first place remain lodged upstream.
Ultimately, an EIR will almost certainly be required in the Cornell Winery case. It seems difficult to conceive of this project withstanding the added scrutiny. To date, even though the various proposals to construct the facility have been tried only in the kangaroo courts of the Sonoma County BZA and Board of Supervisors, it has barely limped away intact in each case.
So it is entirely likely that the project's opponents will even kill the proposal outright in court. If that happens, it will constitute a heavy blow to the North Coast wine enterprise as a whole — and, in particular, its most reckless elements.
Yet, while the issue of the Cornell wine production facility has absorbed nearly all of the focus in the struggle to defend Mark West Creek, that fight has never really been about this single winery. The creek has been ravaged not by that single proposed facility but by rambling acres of monocrop wine-grape farms located on its northern creek. The creek is all but dead now. It was not the first casualty of the wine industry. Certainly, it won't be the last.
An entire watershed sacrificed — to what end?
All along, the clear purpose of Henry Cornell's estate has been to serve as a vanity winery. Cornell's manifest dream is to leave behind the day-to-day grind that comes with pillaging the global economy, joined by many of his wealthy friends — whether they be fellow Goldman Sachs execs or fellow bigwigs at corporations like Cobalt Energy International, seventh largest owner of deep sea oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where Cornell is a director and part owner — to engage in the self-indulgent recreation that North Coast Wine Country uniquely offers members of their class.
In anticipation of living out this fantasy, Cornell has even invested millions of dollars in renovating his $11.5 million penthouse condo on Manhattan's upper-east side near Wall Street. In fact, he seems to have spent his 2008 bailout bonus on the project which will include excavating a cellar to house — what else? — his wine collection.
In a sense, Henry Cornell the man is incidental to the destruction his vineyard and proposed winery have caused. The issue is far bigger than Cornell, or even Mark West Creek, or even still the wine industry. More than any of that, it involves the global economic system that inevitably tends to render jurisdictions like Sonoma County captive to powerful outside economic forces — including, in this particular case, the corporate oligarchy embodied by the wine industry.
Unfortunately, if the story of Mark West Creek's murder illustrates nothing else, it is that the destruction caused by this economic system will not be stopped, nor perhaps even much slowed, through resorting only to the tools the oligarchs have granted by way of the legal system which is rigged at every step of the way in their favor.
Some questions arise: What form of organized resistance will actually stop the destruction? Who in Sonoma County, Mendocino County, and other areas of the North Coast — the region of the country where the wine oligarchy, as an aspect of the larger economic oligarchy, reins supreme — is willing to to mount such a resistance?
And, last, if we don't succeed in resisting, then how much longer before we, too, go the way of the salmon and trout of Mark West Creek?
(Contact Will Parrish at email@example.com. For more information on the campaign to stop the Cornell Winery and protect what remains of the Mark West watershed, visit www.nowwe.org and www.markwestwatershed.org . This is the third in a series of investigative reports on the North Coast wine industry, and the first of two specifically to focus on Sonoma County.)