Artesa of Sonoma, a subsidiary of Spanish wine giant Codorniu, has a public image crisis on its hands, and on a scale few wine companies have ever encountered. Last year, the company received a spate of national media coverage concerning its plan to carry out the largest forest-to-vineyard conversion project in California history, on a 324-acre parcel named “Fairfax” just outside of Annapolis, on the northern Sonoma Coast.
The coverage included stories from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Santa Rosa Press Democrat, North Bay Bohemian, and of course several here in the AVA. Most of the stories focused dually on Artesa's project and that of Premier Pacific Vineyard, which has proposed to clear roughly 1,800 acres of redwoods for wine-grapes on the ridgetops and bluffs of its nearby 20,000 acre “Preservation Ranch” property. Rarely has any North Coast wine industry entity received so much negative attention, this being an industry that carefully identifies itself with the trope of enlightened small farmers in bucolic settings living in harmony with the land.
Yet, i's easy to see why the “Fairfax” project has raised international alarm. The project would involve clear-cutting mostly second-growth redwood forest across roughly 154 acres of the total 173 acre project site. After chainsawing the trees, the Artesa crews would cleave the redwood and Doug-fir stumps and roots from the earth, deep rip the soil with massive Caterpillars, and apply huge quantities of pesticides, herbicides and lime, thereby making way for 116 acres of vineyards, 18 acres of graded vineyard perimeters, nine acres of water reservoirs, two acres of roadways, a one-acre corporate yard, and a vast perimeter of exclusionary fencing.
The project would also decimate an ancient Kashia Pomo village site, despite the protests of Kashia elders and traditionalists, who carry on a cultural memory of the site stretching back thousands of years. I profiled the Kashia's most outspoken opponents of the project, Violet Parrish Chappel and Vivian Parrish Wilder, in a pair of pieces here in the AVA last year. And that's not even to mention its impact on the already badly damaged Gualala River watershed.
Clearly, Codorniu/Artesa's higher-ups have been rattled by the criticism. Company reps claim that the “link with the land and the environment is the foundation stone of all [our] activity,” and that they have “always shown a firm commitment to the land and its natural surroundings” throughout the company's nearly 500 year history. If they were genuine, they might have taken the criticism as cause for carefully reconsidering the project, even if that merely meant opting for a less sensitive area in which to add to their existing global array of vineyards and wineries.
Instead, they hired one of the most infamous public relations firms in the San Francisco Bay Area, a company with a history of propagandizing on behalf of many of the world's most ecologically rapacious corporations — Singer Associates.
To wit, the following somewhat self-aggrandizing description of Singer Associates' function, courtesy of its web site: “[company founder] Sam Singer has been dubbed 'The Fixer' by the San Jose Mercury News, a 'Top Gun for Hire' by the San Francisco Chronicle, and one of the most powerful people in San Francisco by 7X7 Magazine for his ability to turn the news around when things look dire for his clients.”
Chevron Corporation, for instance, hired Singer to help it manage the public image after-effects of the record $18.5 billion fine an Ecuadorian judge ordered it to pay in February 2011 — a verdict upheld by an appeals court in January — as compensation for the incredible amount of damage its subsidiary, Texaco, caused across a huge swath of the Amazon basin. In the course of several years, Texaco dumped oil-drilling waste in over 900 unlined pits, discharged 18.5 billion gallons of toxic water into local streams and rivers, polluted the forest with natural gas venting, and caused illness and deaths among indigenous people.
Since then, Singer has used its network of media contacts to promote Chevron's entirely predictable allegation that the ruling arose from rampant corruption in the Ecuadorian court system, while amazingly also asserting that Texaco adequately cleaned up the mess long ago.
On a vastly smaller scale, Singer is doing its utmost to mystify public perception of the Artesa “Fairfax” project, including by way of the new web site, www.artesasonoma.com . The front page bemoans “inaccurate” newspaper reports related to how Artesa intends to “clear cut old-growth redwood trees” [emphasis added] and “interfere with fragile fisheries.”
Of course, no newspaper has ever reported that Artesa is clear-cutting “old-growth redwood trees. Virtually all remaining old-growth treet on the property were clear-cut 50-75 years ago. More than 97% of the North Coast's redwood old growth has been cut. Anyone with even passing familiarity of regional timber terrain knows the towering 300 foot giants that were once pervasive here have long since been destroyed.
Rather, Artesa plans to clear-cut thousands of second-growth redwoods (many if not most of these trees being at least 80 feet tall) and Doug-firs, thereby also destroying the habitat of the hundreds of species of plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and fungi living in the forest.
For the record, the AVA has never stated that Artesa would “interfere with” fisheries. The terms we prefer are “decimate” or “ravage,” which have the virtue of more accurately reflecting the present dire state of the Gualala River watershed, and especially its Wheatfield Fork (one of three main forks of the Gualala. That particular portion of the river ran dry in 2008, for the first time in recorded history, mainly owing to intensive nearby vineyard development.
The Artesa “Fairfax” development would only make things much worse, greatly increasing the volume of sediment washing down into the watershed, while also depriving the soil of its ability to absorb rainfall that has historically percolated into the watershed, regulating the river level during crucial spring and summer months.
As for the destruction of Kashia sacred sites, Artesa's Facebook page boldly states, “Our plans will not impact the heritage of any Native Americans.” Contrast that statement to one made by two people who actually have a “Native American” heritage, Kashia elders Violet Parrish Chappel and Vivian Parrish Wilder, who come from a long line of tribal spiritual leaders:
“That patch over there — Artesa land in Annapolis — that is a blessed place for us. We went there as kids. We picked berries there with our mother. We picked berries for necklaces. There is another place over there where there is a lot of Manzanita, and that was really important to us. We made spoons from that and also awls to make baskets. These are the things we grew up with... We know that whole area is a village site. All these places were occupied and used by our people. The whole place is one. “
For his part, University of Florida archeologist Peter Schmidt referred to the whole region in and around the site as “one of the densest and most significant, interactive clusters of human habitation along the Sonoma coastal hinterland.”
A pair of other Sonoma and Mendocino Coast tribes have also weighed in on whether the project would “impact the heritage of any Native Americans.” The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and the Manchester Band of Pomo Indians joined the Kashia in passing a strongly-worded resolution earlier this year opposing the project, asserting that it “threatens our watershed, forests, sacred sites, archaeological sites and tribal cultural resources that are of cultural and religious importance.”
It's not yet clear where the various Pomo opposition will go, although Parrish Chappel and Parrish Wilder have strongly advocated for the land to turn into a new center for education on Kashia Pomo culture. In a conversation last week, Kashia Tribal Chairman Emilio Valencia told the AVA, “We're still in process with Artesa, and that's all I can say about that right now.”
Project Approval Looms
In spite of all the opposition, CalFIRE is on the verge of certifying Artesa's proposal. In February, the agency produced a final Environmental Impact Report maintaining that all environmental and archeological impacts from the project can be “mitigated” such that they will be “less than significant.”
Bill Snyder, deputy director of resource management for Cal Fire, justified his agency's looming approval of the project to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat thusly in the April 6 edition: “At that point in time, for us to say we're not going to approve your project because we just don't like it, that would be inconsistent with state law. It's not a popularity contest.”
Yet, the project clearly violates various elements of state law. The Gualala River is officially listed as impaired by high temperature and excess sediment under the federal Clean Water Act. California forestry law prohibits any additional harm to a federally listed impaired river. Meanwhile, the on-site archeological studies have been far shoddier than the California Environmental Quality Act mandates, not to mention a provision of the Sonoma County General Plan that requires preservation of “significant archaeological and historical sites, which represent the ethnic, cultural, and economic groups that have lived and worked in Sonoma County.”
Annapolis resident Chris Poehlman, president of Friends of the Gualala River, says his organization is working with environmental attorney Steve Volker to explore what avenues are best for possible litigation. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club are among the other visible environmental groups opposing the project.
Spurred on by the widespread media attention, various state politicians and candidates for local office have gesticulated in the direction of not fully supporting the project. State Sen. Noreen Evans and Assemblyman Wes Chesbro both contacted Cal Fire with “concerns,” and Evans asking that any decision be delayed to allow more tribal input and implementation of new county vineyard erosion rules that address tree removal on slopes and ridgetops.
Those new rules are being crafted by the Sonoma County Agriculture Department office. They would update an existing ordinance, which the SoCo Supervisors passed in 2000, which meagerly govern agricultural development on hillsides and steep slopes. The new rules would likely delay approval of Artesa's project by a few months, forcing them to reconfigure their plan to account for restrictions on tree removal in steep areas and adjacent to streams.
In February, a San Francisco Examiner Political Bluzz blog article touting the Artesa project appeared a few months ago, which was exactly identical to an Artesa press release. That is, other than the mysterious addition of three paragraphs accusing Poehlman of Friends of the Gualala River of undertaking “anti-immigrant, anti-Spanish tirades” on account of the following statement the Press Democrat attributed to him: “This is a foreign corporation coming into the coastal forests of California wanting to cut down our forests for their corporate gain.”
It seems that Artesa's hired PR gun, Singer Associates, is following basically the same playbook — including ad hominem attacks — as it has used in its defenses of Chevron-Texaco's monumentally destructive activities in the Amazon jungle.
The public relations battle concerning the project promises to ramp up in coming months, after CalFIRE officially approves the project. As Friends of the Gualala River noted in a letter to Codorniu's Barcelona headquarters in March, asking the company to withdraw their project, “We fully expect media coverage to surge again to greater levels during inevitable objections or challenges to the final permits for the Artesa project.”