Viansa Winery Wetlands

Sam and Vicki Sebastiani are the third generation heirs to one of California's most noted and historic wine families, Sebastiani Vineyards. The winery was founded in 1904 by Samuele Sebastiani, who had immigrated from Tuscany and settled in the Sonoma Valley. His son, August, took the winery into a leadership role in winemaking and marketing in the United States. Yet August loved more than wine. He was also an early conservationist who maintained a noted aviary with a large collection of waterfowl – ducks, geese and swans – from all parts of the world. In the late 1980s, Sam and Vicki decided to open a new winery which would bear their personal touch and vision.

They purchased 175 plus acres of former ranchland south of Sonoma in the Carneros wine region, just north of San Pablo Bay, to create a small family-run winery and food marketplace to promote the wines and foods of Tuscany. In 1988, they began planting their vineyards with many Italian grape varieties little known in the U.S., and constructing an Old World, Italian-style winery with two-foot thick stuccoed walls and tile roofs, stone fermentation tanks, and underground barrel-aging cellars atop a hill overlooking the valley. The site is alongside Highway 121 about 35 miles north of San Francisco. It was a favorable site to locate in because it is one of the first wineries one reaches upon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. With the imposing hilltop winery, its striking Mediterranean architecture, the matching stucco gateways to the property and the presence of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau just inside the entrance, it attracts a steady stream of visitors. The property stretches east from Highway 121, which parallels the edge of the coastal foothills, to Sonoma Creek. The winery officially opened on February 19, 1990. Sam and Vicki are not only the proprietors, but also the winemakers, and Vicki runs the Viansa kitchen, luncheon “caffe”, and Italian marketplace.

So what? Another winery in California? But Viansa is a winery with a difference. A large wooden sign beside Highway 12, the route from Napa to Sonoma, directing the public to Viansa, advertises: “Viansa Winery & Marketplace: Wines — Italian Kitchen — Wetlands”. Surely, this is unique in the world of wines. For Sam Sebastiani is also a wetlands proprietor and a wetlands maker. Sam, a conservationist like his father August, is also an avid duck hunter and member and supporter of Ducks Unlimited. He has also successfully completed Cornell University's noted Laboratory of Ornithology correspondence course, and his certificate hangs in a prominent place on his office wall.

Recognizing the importance of wetlands and wetlands restoration and creation projects, not only for waterfowl, but for hundreds of species of birds, mammals, fish, frogs, invertebrates and plants, Sam decided to create a wetland on the eastern side of his property along the edge of Sonoma Creek. California's Mediterranean climate produces heavy rains from December into April and drought the rest of the year. Seasonal flooding of Sonoma Creek turns lowlands bordering it into seasonally flooded wetlands, too wet for vineyards or crops. Decades ago long meandering levees were built along the length of both banks of the creek to control the flooding. However, the substantial winter rains and runoff from the hills to the west would always flood the lowland fields for a few months anyway. Flood control gates were placed along the levees so that once the stream levels dropped, landowners could open the gates to drain their fields. Most landowners along the creek traditionally grazed livestock on that acreage or occasionally tilled it to encourage new grass growth or seeded it with oats and grains to produce hay for their livestock.

Sebastiani decided to improve upon Mother Nature and turn his seasonally flooded fields into a semi-permanent productive wetland. Of the winery's 175 acres, 90 fell within the seasonable wetlands category. While some environmental purists argue that only Mother Nature can create a wetland, Sam created a pretty fair approximation – certainly enough to fool her creatures.

Working closely with California Ducks Unlimited biologists, design engineers and construction teams, and with advice from California Department of Fish and Game biologists, they constructed – at considerable expense – a nearly permanent, variable depth wetlands on what had been seasonally flooded agricultural fields. Earth-moving equipment was brought in to create an ideal semi-permanent wetlands system. Deep areas were created for diving ducks, shallow areas for dabbling ducks, gently-sloping shores and mudflats for wading birds, shorebirds and sandpipers, and predator-proof islands as nesting sites.

A 1,500-foot long east-west levee was constructed along the north side of the Viansa property along the property line separating it from Cline Cellars land to the immediate north. This was necessary to hold the deep water in Viansa's wetlands and lengthen the ponding time, as well as to prevent any flooding of the Cline fields. The boundary levee was about 30-feet wide at the base, ten feet at the top, and four to five feet high. Gates were also put in the Sonoma Creek levee to better help regulate and manage water levels in the wetlands. Native wetlands vegetation quickly reestablished itself from the dormant seed bank in the soils, ranging from dense stands of tall bulrushes and cattails, through dozens of shorter sedges, grasses and flowers, to submerged aquatic vegetation. There was some planting of vegetation, although most of this was on dryer land around the marshes.

The result was spectacular. The Sebastianis created a productive wetland with a thriving diversity of species. Indeed, there is enough diversity of nesting and wintering habitat and plant and invertebrate food species to create a site worthy of a special visit. Over 156 species of birds have been recorded on the wetlands and adjacent uplands in the few years since the construction of the seasonal marsh was completed in 1993. Forty-four species have been documented or suspected of nesting in the marshland or adjacent to it. One of the exciting species to nest in the marsh was the Tricolored Blackbird, listed as a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Game, and an uncommon enough species that until recently it had been a candidate for the California Endangered Species List and the U.S. Endangered Species List. And there have been some spectacular and unexpected peak counts. Over 10,000 waterfowl have been counted on the 90 acres on a single day, and this tiny artificial wetlands has turned out to be a significant wintering site for some species of diving ducks – especially the much esteemed Canvasback.

The Canvasback is considered by many to be the king of North American waterfowl, with no more than two or three competitors for the crown. While not especially wary or hard to hunt, it is a large, striking-looking duck, and is especially renowned for its qualities at the table. Game connoisseurs, especially around the mid-Atlantic's Chesapeake Bay, always awaited the coming of duck season with great relish, when the marsh-grown birds from the prairie lands of the U.S.- Canada border would arrive to fatten on the aquatic celery beds of the Chesapeake's shallows. They were then shot and rushed to the tables of Baltimore's finest dining rooms and restaurants, where the likes of the Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, would do their best to consume their fair share. But unfortunately, decades of over-hunting, long periods of drought, conversion of the prairie wetlands into agricultural fields, and pollution and turbidity in the Chesapeake waters produced a long-term population decline and a closed season for many years. Only in recent years has there been any sign of a recovery.

Some 35,000 Canvasback winter on the broad reaches of San Francisco Bay each year. Some ten percent of those birds, 3,000 or so, regularly rest and feed on Viansa's tiny marsh, and on a day in March 1995, approximately 8,000 Canvasback were crowded onto those 90 acres of artificial habitat. With the Bay and its associated wetlands covering about 1,000 square miles, nearly one quarter of the total wintering population sought sustenance and shelter on Sam's imperfect little 90 acres. He must have been doing something right.

Indeed, a drive along Highway 121 and an examination of the natural wetlands in the floodplain is instructive. On a day in early April, at the end of the migration season and the beginning of the breeding season, the natural ponds, flooded meadows, and occasional oxbow lakes, cut off from the meandering creek, held very few birds – an occasional Great Blue Heron, a duck or a grebe. But Viansa's carefully designed and tailored wetlands were alive with thousands of birds. Lingering Tundra Swans were still delaying their migration to Alaska and there were Canada Geese and eight or so species of ducks, including many engaging in courtship flights. Egrets and herons waded the shallows and flocks of sandpipers covered the shores, including such striking species as American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt, which would soon be nesting. A few gulls, terns and hawks soared overhead and flocks of swallows skimmed over the water, while various blackbirds perched in the reed beds. The surrounding dry land vegetation held everything from woodpeckers to finches.

For most of the year the Viansa wetlands are closed, to serve as a nesting, wintering or migratory refuge for the birds. But a small system of trails and boardwalks, leading to observation and photographic blinds, have been constructed. Throughout the spring, early summer and fall, a staff naturalist leads early morning birdwatching and nature tours through the property. Scheduled tours are limited to 30 guests, and the price of $7.50 includes the guided tour, some bottled water, and discount privileges for the day at the winery and food market. Special guided tours for groups of 18 or more can be scheduled for other dates.

Following the tour, guests may purchase picnic lunches, special meals from the Italian deli, or fancy lunches from the Tuscan Grill, as well as a decent drop of red or white, and dine on the picnic tables under the grape arbors and olive trees atop the hill overlooking the wetlands. A plaque dedicating the wetlands is mounted on the picnic ground wall and special high-powered viewing telescopes have been installed to provide a close-up look at the sweeping panorama. Viansa has even started publishing a periodic Viansa Wetlands Newsletter, covering sightings and highlights, as well as special events and tours. And finally, Sebastiani created two special Viansa Tuscan wines, the Riserva Anatra Bianco and Riserva Anatra Rosso (Riserva Anatra means duck preserve), which are dedicated to waterfowl conservation, and Sebastiani donates one dollar from the sale of each to Ducks Unlimited to help protect wetlands.

The Costs of Doing Good

Not long after starting work on Viansa, Sam Sebastiani confided to an old family friend and Ducks Unlimited volunteer, Dave Hillendahl, that he hoped he might be able to turn his lowlands along the creek into a first-rate wetlands for wildlife. In 1990, Sam made a more serious proposal to Hillendahl, who then contacted officials with the Western Regional Office of Ducks Unlimited in Sacramento. DU officials, biologists and construction contractors then visited the site and agreed with Sebastiani that it was an ideal site to create a near-permanent marsh.

Based on extensive experience they estimated that it would cost $50,000 to construct and take about 60 days to complete. DU agreed to cover the costs and Sebastiani produced his two special “duck preserve” wines, donating a dollar from the sale of each to DU for wetland protection and creation projects all across the country. DU, wetlands, conservation and wildlife all benefited from the education impact on the nearly 100,000 annual visitors to Viansa. Surely a win-win situation in the making.

Unfortunately, politics intervened, as state, local and federal regulators turned these efforts to carry out private conservation into a nightmare. All of the following government agencies ultimately became involved with some aspect of the project: Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; Sonoma County Planning Department, Permits and Resource Management; Sonoma County Reclamation District; California Department of Fish and Game; U. S. Army Corps of Engineers; U. S. Environmental Protection Agency; U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and the U. S. Department of Justice. The result was months of delays which stretched into a few years, a tripling of the costs of creation of the Viansa Wetlands, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal costs, consulting costs, reports, mitigation construction, and so on. The project’s fallout pit neighbor against neighbor, dividing the community and county, creating fear and distrust.

The first, and perhaps most complicated and unpredictable, planning hurdle was to go to the County Board of Supervisors and the County Planning Department to apply for zoning permits to turn the seasonally flooded lowland agricultural fields into a semi-permanent or permanent wetlands. While the county zoning ordinances were not specific and comprehensive in regard to grading activities in such areas, it became clear that because the activity was proposed along Sonoma Creek, a zoning permit with environmental review would be required.

The county permit process began in late summer 1990, and stretched out for some 18 months. Concerns about the proposed Viansa Wetlands were expressed by some of the neighbors to Sam Sebastiani's property, in particular the Bisso brothers to the east and the Schellville Airport to the north, which was worried that the project might flood one of its runways. His immediate neighbors to the north, Fred and Nancy Cline were also concerned. In February 1989, the Clines had purchased the 350-acre Haddon Salt Ranch located immediately to the north of and upstream from Viansa in order to plants grapes and establish a winery on the uplands west of Highway 121, and to continue grazing, discing and planting oats for hay on their wet eastern fields adjacent to Sonoma Creek.

Because of the common property line between Sebastiani's and Cline's contiguous wet lowland fields along the creek, their respective goals for the use of their respective lands conflicted. Sebastiani wanted to increase ponding time on his land and create a permanent wetland, while Cline was anxious to decrease ponding time and continue the traditional agricultural uses of his lowlands. Each expressed concerns about the other's activities. These contentious issues helped to drag out the permit process and required that Ducks Unlimited attend meeting after meeting with biologists, consultants and engineers.

Finally, some 18 months later on February 13, 1992, the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments approved the zoning permits for the creation of the Viansa Wetlands. The permit included numerous conditions, including monitoring of the wetlands creation and establishment and submission of annual reports for a minimum of five years. As late as September 1995 the permit conditions and performance compliance were still contentious and public hearings were almost reopened.

Meanwhile, it was clear to Ducks Unlimited that in the engineering design and construction of the Viansa Wetlands an east-west levee would have to be constructed along the Cline/Sebastiani property line in order to create, fill, and maintain a permanent wetland at Viansa, while at the same time preventing the rising water at Viansa from inundating the Cline’s agricultural fields. The tidegate in the Sonoma Creek levee at the north end of Sebastiani's seasonally flooded fields had already been non-functioning, causing longer winter rain and flood water ponding on Cline's eastern field which had traditionally drained out through Sebastiani's tidegate. (This had been an early bone of contention between the two as Cline had asked Sebastiani to repair his gate to allow the Cline fields to drain. That, of course, was incompatible with Sebastiani's plans for permanent water on his fields).

But this was just the first layer of government permits and approval at the county level. There still remained the state government and the federal government to deal with. While the county planning process and zoning process was to a large degree an unpredictable crap shoot, the onerous and costly federal permit process still lay ahead.

To most Americans, and even to Sam Sebastiani, the Viansa Wetlands represented a positive good. Sebastiani was either creating permanent high-quality wetlands on what were essentially nothing more than seasonally flooded agricultural pasturelands, or he was restoring the semi-permanent marshes which had once existed along Sonoma Creek before its levees were constructed at the turn of the century.

However, Ducks Unlimited knew that the federal Clean Water Act might be an obstacle. Section 404 of the Act, which prohibits discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the United States, had been expanded to apply to most all land in the United States which ponds water for more than a few days each year, or which otherwise contains hydric soil or is the home of hydrophytic plants. The federal government declared all such lands “jurisdictional wetlands of the United States” and subjected their use to federal permitting requirements.

When the Clean Water Act was passed, an exemption was created for existing farming, ranching and silviculture activities. Landowners who had already been undertaking agricultural use of lands which were now designated as wetlands, were grandfathered in with agricultural exemptions and permitted to continue historical farming practices, including grazing, discing, crop planting, mowing and harvesting. However, changing or abandoning traditional agricultural uses and proceeding to new uses constituted a violation of Section 404 and required the landowner to obtain a permit, which would require the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, if not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well.

In the midst of the county planning process, Ducks Unlimited applied for a Section 404 permit and on February 4, 1991, the Corps issued a public notice of the Viansa Wetlands project. And on March 18, 1991, the California Department of Fish and Game submitted a letter supporting the Viansa Wetlands. Finally in the fall of 1992, Viansa and Ducks Unlimited had all their ducks in a row – they had obtained all the necessary zoning changes, permits and approvals from the county, state and federal agencies and departments. Thus in November 1992, actual construction of the Viansa Wetlands began.

Although Sebastiani and Ducks Unlimited believed they were doing good by turning seasonally wet pasturelands into a first class, high-quality, permanent wetlands, the Army Corps of Engineers had a different perspective. Rather than wetland restoration, it saw the alteration or destruction of wetlands. Construction of the 1,500-foot long and 30-foot wide levee across the fields to keep water on the Viansa lands and off the Cline lands, which was a necessary component of the Viansa Wetlands project, was considered a violation of Section 404 by placing or discharging fill material on the jurisdictional wetlands of the United States. Consequently, in order to obtain the permit required to create the 90 acres of wetlands, Viansa had to undertake mitigation for the “harm” it had done.