New vineyards planned for Vaca Range

New vineyards planned for Vaca Range

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Four growers in Napa County have filled erosion control plans for more than 1,000 acres of new vineyards in Napa County’s Vaca Range between Rutherford and Circle Oaks — and another is preparing to file a plan to plant 300 to 400 more in the south part of the  range north of Jamieson Canyon Road.

All expect to plant vines in this much-sought mountainous territory, source of much of Napa Valley’s most esteemed wines.

Now, Napa County contains about 43,000 acres of vineyards in its 465,000 total acres (9 percent) and experts say only a few more acres are suitable and legal for planting.

The four proposals filed are for :

• Circle S Ranch with about 337 acres of vines in 1593 acres (26 acres are in vineyards now)

• Rodgers/Upper Range Vineyard with 161 acres on 678 acres

• Stagecoach Vineyards, 90 additional acres in a 1130-acre property already containing 541 acres of vines.

• Walt Ranch with about 400 acres of vines in 2300 acres (5 acres planted at present)   

In addition, Silverado Premium Partners is hoping to plant 300 to 400 acres among the 2,000 acres it has acquired that was formerly the northern part of the Kirkland Ranch north of Jamieson Canyon Road. It hasn’t completed its planning or applied for a permit. This is not the land for sale around the Kirkland Winery.

All of the proposed vineyards lie in mountainous areas east of Napa Valley proper. All are in areas allocated for agriculture and watershed, but the land owners have to get county approval for erosion control on any vineyards on slopes greater than 5 percent, which includes most of this land. None can be planted on slopes greater than 30 percent.

The vineyards are being proposed instead of mansions with vineyards and wineries like those that have sprung on the hillside between Napa and Angwin. Each property contains numerous parcels, each of which could legally be used for a main house and an adjacent house plus a guest house. Any larger than 10 acres (almost all) could contain a winery under today’s Napa County regulations.

None of these proposal plan such development; it’s all agriculture. Nevertheless, some environmental groups object to any changes from brushland and some forest to agriculture, though most envision developing less than 25 percent of the total space.

All the property is being proposed for the “highest use of the land” as defined by Napa County Code, but the paperwork and regulations involved to plant are mindboggling.

Most of the initial erosion control plans, the fundamental document for development, total more than 300 pages, and the grower have to deal with innumerable bureaus and dozens of different issues to get approval. Stephen Smith of Rodgers Land Development says his family has been working on planting their land for a decade.

Circle S Ranch

Circle S Ranch is a large cattle ranch that lies between Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon Roads in the Foss Valley area. It was bought three years ago by Bill Hill’s Premier Pacific Vineyards, which proposes planting  337 acres of new vineyards at slopes over 5 percent within 411 gross acres on the 1593-acre ranch. The land lies at 1,340 to 2.627 ft. above sea level.

The property now has 27 acres of vineyard. Plans would plant 4 acres in flatter land, which doesn’t require an erosion control plan; most of the flat land on the ranch is in protected wetlands, a paradise for waterfowl. The ranch contains a ranch house where one employee lives; six more would be added in existing buildings.

The property includes 20 legal parcels, so this vineyard development could basically save a large amount of Napa County hillsides from development, as will these other vineyards.

In addition, the company intends to place 556 acres of oak woodland in the Land Trust of Napa Valley to preserve it for the future.

Richard Wollack, the co-founder and president of Premier Pacific, anticipates that the project will be approved by the county prior to the spring of 2009.

He doesn’t expect and major questions or delays. “The Circle S Ranch project proposes that only approximately 30 percent of the property be planted as vineyards and was planned to avoid environmentally sensitive areas, such as, wetlands, riparian areas, sensitive plants, etc.,” he said.  “The project includes the preservation and enhancement of over 550 acres of oak woodlands and restoration of Milliken Creek and its riparian zone.”

He says that he expects to start work as soon as approval is received, and the vineyards will be planted primarily in Bordeaux varietals, notably cabernet Sauvignon.  

Premier has about 300 acres planted in other vineyards in Napa County. With Circle S Ranch, it will have more than 600 acres planted in Napa County.

Walt Ranch

Another large proposed development is 2,300-acre Walt Ranch between Circle S Ranch property and Circle Oaks Development on Monticello Road in Capell Valley in southeastern Napa County. It lies approximately seven miles northeast of Napa.

Owned by Hall Brambletree Associates, it’s part of Craig and Kathryn Hall’s Napa County property. The Halls own about 400 acres of vineyards and two wineries in Napa County, including the Napa River Ranch with 172 acres planted of 223; Hardester in Pope Valley with 144 planted of 254; 14 of 33 acres around their new winery in St. Helena; and 30 of 40 acres around their small winery in Rutherford.

Walt is Kathryn’s maiden name; she formerly managed her family’s Walt Vineyard in Mendocino County.

The project site consists mostly of undeveloped oak woodland, chaparral and grassland  at elevation from 850 to 2,150 feet.

The Walt Ranch contains 30 parcels ranging in size from 20 to 90 acres. It has no structures and Hall president Mike Reynolds says that none are planned. The erosion control plan application proposes development of 397  acres of vineyard on slopes greater than five percent.

A total of 6 acres of vineyard in areas with slopes less than five percent was planted in 2006 and 2007. An additional 1.3 acres with slopes less than five percent was cleared for vineyard in 2006, but has not been planted.

Will the economy delay planting? Reynolds says, “This is a spectacular property. We hope to plant it as soon as we get approval!”

Stagecoach Vineyards

The proposed planting at Stagecoach Vineyards in the hilly Foss Valley bowl between Rector Canyon and Sage Canyon in south-central Napa County consists of 90 acres to be added to the 541 acres of vineyards on the 1130-acre property. It is owned by the Krupp family and partners, and managed by Dr. Jan Krupp.

Most of the new vineyard will be infill among existing vines. The area is largely unforested with only 22 acres of trees on the whole property and 551 acres of shrub, brush and grass. No trees would be removed in this project.

Rodgers/Upper Range Vineyard

While the other properties are isolated and largely hidden from view, the Rodgers/Upper Range Vineyard is more visible. It lies on the Silverado Trail across from Mumm and ZD Wineries, stretching from the heavily traveled road east well in the hills toward Lake Hennessey and Pritchard Hill.

The Upper Range Vineyard would be a new 161-acre vineyard on seven contiguous parcels totaling 678 acres (24 percent coverage).

Long Vineyards lies to its east, Rich Frank’s Winston Hill Vineyard to the north and Peña Vineyards to the south.

The land lies below 1000 ft., most at 500 to 700 ft.

It is proposed for development by Rodgers Land Development Company of Pleasant Hill, a family company headed by Stephen Smith, whose grandparents bought the land in 1940.

The family also has 150 acres on Trubody Lane in the Oak Knoll District, where it grows fruit for Mumm sparkling wine as well as Baxter and Rowland wineries. It also owns the Smith Family Vineyard in Suisun Valley.

Smith expects approval in a few months, but he anticipates litigation from environmental groups to delay planting.

Smith says his family may eventually develop a brand and small winery on the property or partner with an existing winery such as Mumm.

Napa County planner Bryan Bordona says that some smaller applications of up to 50 acres are also under review.

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