Friday, May 13, 2011

Jess Jackson's Legacy and the State of Wine Journalism in California

Kendall Jackson surveying his mountaintop hillside vineyards from his helicopter

Will Parrish, Anderson Valley Advertiser
I have to say journalist Will Parrish has hit it on the head. Sometimes the Anderson Valley Advertiser is overboard, but this article about the state of wine journalism is right on the money - literally.

I've often thought the way the media covers the wine industry is unusual. But with 3 out of 4 journalists losing their jobs in the last decade and environmental journalism slashed at most papers...what can we expect? More, let's hope, than wine reviews.

This topic of declinng environmental coverage has been much lamented by those of us in the Society of Environmental Journalists. Here's an even more alarming piece of news - even training for environmental journalists is being cut.

Parrish spells out Jackson's autocratic behavior and the battles that resulted when both government officials and environmentalists opposed him for cutting down hundreds of oak trees, deforesting hilltops, and causing massive erosion. Of his hilltop vineyards, Parrish writes:

"Most of the acreage was previously forested, so the trees were removed and their roots ripped out prior to the vineyard plantings. Often, the hilltops were flattened out by massive bulldozers, removing vast amounts of soil and rock. Pesticides were applied in copious amounts. The vineyards not only require irrigation, but they com mand a massive amount of frost protection water due to their cool climates. That often means damming up all the available streams and building huge water reservoirs. Soil erosion invariably has resulted from the removal of trees and other anchoring vegetation. With the steepness of the sites, the soil washed down into creeks and streams."

What does it mean when a guy like Jess Jackson can buy 14,000 acres of vineyards - with 11,000 of them on land classified as mountaintops or hillsides (as Parrish says) - and care for them this way? This way of running our wine industry is, despite its assurances, not sustainable. One can ask where are the county and state environmental laws that protect against this type of land use? And where is the enforcement of existing legislation? Culture plays a large role in land use as well. And, of course, consumer pressure could play a role. That's part of the reason this blog exists - to help consumers make the market reward the best actors by buying from them and spreading awareness about their practices.

Ironically, a piece in the SF Chronicle about the future of the company in a post-Jackson world, includes this comment from CEO DOn Hartford, Jackson's son in law:

"We're trying to make characterful wines that tell a story of a place," Hartford said.

Hilltops flattened to make vineyards remind one of the coal companies' outrageous mountaintop removal projects. Surely this is not where we want our wines, our plaisir, to come from. What kind of pleasure is this? 

Read Will's piece on media coverage of Jess Jackson (California wine baron/titan) and let me know what you think.

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