People crush, grape rush put squeeze on California

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TEMECULA, Calif., Oct 23 (Reuters) California wine country in fall is picture-perfect as vines turn gold and orange and workers harvest plump grape bunches to crush for cabernets, chardonnays and pinot noirs.

But just as the juice ferments, so does resentment over the use of the precious land. From north to south of the leading US wine state, battle lines are being drawn through the vineyards.

In the south, vintners struggle to keep home development from encroaching, while northern California wine grape growers are expanding up the slopes and into the forests, much to the dismay of environmental groups.

Land conflicts surrounding the wine industry are likely to worsen as the people crush and the so-called ''grape rush'' show no signs of abating in the most populous US state. Vines grow today along Los Angeles freeways and amid the giant redwood forests of the misty north.

''The cost of the land has skyrocketed, which forces (winegrowers) to sell or subdivide to put houses on it,'' said Jeff Wiens, general manager of Wiens Family Cellars, in Temecula, Riverside County, southeast of Los Angeles.

The state estimates Riverside County will double its population to 4.7 million by the year 2050, making it the second-largest county in California. The overall population in California will climb to 60 million from 36 million today.

Wine production in Temecula began in the 1960s and housing development expanded later, as residents priced out of San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties looked for more affordable housing.

''It's very hard for vineyards and housing to co-exist,'' says Jim Carter, owner of South Coast Winery, one of Temecula's largest vintners. ''Farming can never produce the dollars that housing can produce.'' SUBDIVISIONS WITH WINERIES As the number of residents rises, so do the politics of land use.

''We're probably where Napa, California, was in the 1970's and 1980's,'' said Ray Falkner, president of the Temecula Valley Wine Growers Association.

A decade ago, he said, Napa winegrowers were free to operate their vineyards and wineries. Restrictions imposed by the area's homeowners eventually changed the way wine-growers operated there.

As with Napa, the lure to live in the rolling hills of Temecula's wine country is strong.

Top Temecula developer Dan Stephenson is in the planning stages for ''Europa Village,'' a 330-acre (135-hectare) project that will merge wine-making and country living. Fifty-eight homes will intermingle with three wineries.

So far, he says, there has been little resistance from vintners, who are welcoming the wineries and tolerating the housing.

''We're going to knock the socks off wine country,'' said Stephenson.

But in practicality, grape farming is far less romantic than most imagine. Pesticides are sprayed, tractors growl down bumpy roads and the stench of fertilizer permeates the air.

Falkner and other vintners worry that outsiders may eventually upset operations.

''The more residents, the more pressure,'' Falkner said.

While ordinances are in place to constrain urban sprawl, Falkner still worries.

''To be truthful, the big test is yet to come,'' he said.

''Let's see what happens in another 10 years.'' VINES CREEP INTO FOREST Meanwhile, up north in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, vineyards battle with environmentalists for expansion into woodlands and even redwood forests -- fertile ground for the popular yet delicate pinot noir grape.

Members of the Sierra Club are fighting to keep Premiere Pacific Vineyards from developing about 1,700 acres (690 hectares) of forest land. They argue that the project, dubbed Preservation Ranch, poses a risk of water pollution and would upset wildlife and the ecosystem.

''The loss of the trees 1,650 acres is a substantial loss,'' said Jay Halcomb, chair of the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club.

But Preservation Ranch says the project will reserve 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) out of 19,700 (8,000 hectares) to plant over 1 million trees -- and that is only viable because a vineyard is in its midst.

''We believe it's an environmentally sound project. The value added from the vineyard makes the whole thing possible,'' said attorney Eric Koenigshofer.

REUTERS ARB RK0950

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