T.J. Rodgers seeks permit to install winery above La Honda

The Almanac Online – January 28, 2009

T.J. Rodgers seeks permit to install winery above La Honda
New round of county hearings will be held this spring

By Marion Softky

At last, Clos de la Tech has produced its first pinot noir from 25 acres of grapes in T.J. Rodgers’ vineyard west of Skyline and above La Honda.

“It’s to die for,” says Valeta Massey, Mr. Rodgers’ wife, partner, and manager of the project. She stomped the grapes herself, clad in a wet suit with abalone boots to protect her feet.

But, Mr. Rodgers’ dream of producing the best pinot noir in the world in commercial quantities at a high-tech, super-environmental vineyard and winery on 165 acres — located two miles down Langley Hill Road from Skyline Boulevard — still has a long way to go.

Seven years after Mr. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor and a resident of Woodside, got a permit from San Mateo County to drill three caves 300 feet into Langley Hill for the winery, he is still trying to get another permit to install the actual winery in the caves. Grapes from Mr. Rodgers’ three vineyards are now being trucked to San Carlos to make the wine.

The caves, about 25 feet wide and high, are arranged in descending order so that the wine can run by gravity from the fermentation cave, to the barrel cave where the wine is aged, to the final bottling cave.

The first setback in the project came early, when workers drilling the caves encountered basalt. It turns out that Langley Hill and neighboring Mindego Hill were an ancient volcanic formation, not soft, drillable dirt and rock.

Months of blasting with dynamite to complete the caves riled neighbors, particularly downhill in La Honda. At the same time, neighbors became increasingly concerned about impacts of the vineyard on their community. They worried about how it might compete for scarce water supplies, or how erosion from runoff might silt up streams and pollute drinking water with pesticides and chemicals.

A draft environmental impact report (DEIR) on the winery application was released last summer. It analyzed these impacts and found that most of them were minor or could be mitigated.

The DEIR provoked a surge of criticism in writing and at public hearings. The county Planning Commission took the protests seriously enough to ask for major additional studies and revisions to the DEIR.

The revised DEIR should be released in April, says county planner Mike Schaller. It will be available for public review and comment for 45 days, and subject to several public hearings before the commission acts on the winery application.

The revised EIR will include results of a new hydrologic study that looks at both groundwater supply and demand in the area, and at surface drainage from the vineyards into Langley and Woodhams creeks. “It should hopefully answer the questions,” Mr. Schaller says. One key element in the winery application, a land swap, is being welcomed by downhill neighbors. Mr. Rodgers proposes to trade about 23 acres of land in the watershed of Woodhams Creek for land above the entry owned by neighbor Willard Wyman.

This land trade, which depends on county approval of the winery application, would eliminate a potential vineyard on the steep slopes above Woodhams Creek. This creek provides the water supply for Cuesta La Honda, a community of 280 homes and the La Honda Elementary School.

“The proposed land swap is a big step in the right direction in terms of ensuring the protection of our drinking water,” wrote the Cuesta La Honda Guild in a comment last August.

Toby McCleod of La Honda wants to be assured that no present or future owner will be able to plant grapes on the hills above the creek. “We would like to see the Woodhams acreage permanently protected with something like a conservation easement as a condition of the permit,” he says.

Another part of the winery application that drew broad opposition has been changed. The applicant has withdrawn a request to create a new zoning category for “Scenic Wineries” above 1,500 feet; instead he is applying for a “planned unit development” under the current zoning.

The scenic winery zoning would have opened some 17,000 acres in the county to wineries, with a capacity of 13,000 cases of wine per year (the current limit is 2,500), according to county reports. The planned unit development zoning would allow Clos de la Tech to be treated on an individual basis.

“PUD is more sensible,” says Lennie Roberts of the Committee for Green Foothills. “It’s a one-of-a-kind category, and it can be tailored to the specifics of the site and the specifics of the project.”

Walking the vineyards
It’s hard not to be impressed by the immaculate vineyards of Clos de la Tech, clinging neatly to the rolling Coastside hills. Twenty-ive acres have been planted so far; 62 acres are planned.

Close to 40 neighbors turned out on a sunny December Friday to hear T.J. Rodgers demonstrate how he is nurturing grapes to produce the best pinot noir in the world. Using a combination of ancient French and modern high-tech methods, he aims, he says, for not only the best wine, but the most environmentally sensitive vineyard and winery.

The grass is young and green where the vines climb down the steep hillside toward the creek below. “We don’t break ground; we drill 9- or 10-inch holes for each plant,” says Mr. Rodgers. “All you see is green.”

He is proud of his special lightweight tractor, which runs up and down the steep hills on a cable, powered by an engine at the top. Workers can plant grapes, tend grapes and pick grapes, all without tearing up the soil. The tractor won first prize at a European wine fair as the most innovative new piece of farm equipment in 2001, according to Ms. Massey.

The vineyard features two drip-irrigation systems, one to water grapes four or five times a year when the grapes get stressed, the other for new plants that need more water. “You get better wine with less water,” Mr. Rodgers says.

Neighbors press Mr. Rodgers about their concerns. Gophers? “We use Juicy Fruit gum,” he replies. They also trap the pests, but do not use rodenticides to control them.

The caves are large, cool, dark and unfinished. For the upper cave, where Ms. Massey may not have the energy to stomp a whole crop of grapes, Mr. Rodgers is developing a new machine to crush grapes gently with prosthetic feet. “It mimics me crushing grapes,” she says.

He waves toward the ceiling of the fermentation cave, where he plans a home for his retirement. “I will really be a cave man,” he says.

Water: key issue
“Will you get the water you need without impacting the water table?” asks Jim Gorman, who owns land nearby.

As light winter rains portend a third year of drought, this is becoming a key issue for neighbors in discussions of the vineyards and winery.

“We worry about the long-term effects of development at the top of the watershed,” says Jessica Abbe of La Honda, a member of the La Honda-Pescadero school board.

Clos de la Tech depends on two wells in the watershed of Langley Creek, and permission to drill a third, Ms. Massey says, adding: “My belief is our property is not connected to springs on Woodhams Creek. These are wells, not watersheds.”

Water use by the winery should not be an issue, Ms. Massey argues, because 95 percent of the water goes to water grapes in the vineyard.

With water conservation at levels that stress grapes to produce better wine, Mr. Rodgers estimates the vineyard will require 30,000 gallons per acre per year when vines are mature. “This water consumption equates to using 0.54 inches of the approximately 30 inches of rainfall that falls yearly on the vineyard,” he wrote in a 2005 letter to the county.

Neighbors, and some authorities, still worry that increased water withdrawals for the vineyards could affect other wells and springs in the area, and ultimately, surface runoff that reaches local streams.

Allan Richards, court-appointed “water master” for the San Gregorio watershed, shares the concern. He administers the legal allocation of surface water rights in the watershed, where users of water for irrigation faced rationing last year and may again this year. But he has no authority over groundwater and wells such as those at Clos de la Tech.

In comments on the DEIR, Mr. Richards expressed concern that the proposed 500-plus-percent increase in well water use for additional vineyards and the winery could affect the flow of groundwater that feeds local streams. “The increased pumping could impact springs and surface flow in nearby creeks,” he says.

Maybe the new hydrologic study will answer the questions.

Other issues
Kathy Crane, who operates the Yerba Buena Native Plant Nursery adjacent to Clos de la Tech, also worries about increased traffic down private, unpaved Langley Hill Road to serve an industrial winery. “A factory should be near a big road, not a small road,” she says.

Ms. Massey responds by noting the winery will not be open to the public for wine tasting or visits, and it will continue to receive about 15 truck trips per year. “Nothing will change,” she says. “There will be fewer truck trips than if we truck grapes to San Carlos (to make wine).”

Ms. Massey remains open to working with neighbors to solve problems. “We have been and will work with everybody to make it work,” she says. “Let us know.”

Ms. Massey concludes, “This is going to be an environmental masterpiece, and it’s going to bring renown to San Mateo County.”

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