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Rutherford Creates Largest River Restoration Project in Wine Industry History

Submitted By: Tara Thomas, December 15, 2010
Rutherford, CA – "This must be the most valuable dirt in America," says Gretchen Hayes, project coordinator. She is looking at a mountain of soil removed from steeply eroding river banks in order to provide fish habitat and restore the natural flow of the Napa River through the Rutherford American Viticultural Area. "It is truly a mountain of Rutherford Dust, and the greatest wines in America are grown in this coveted red soil!"

For the past seven years, a river restoration team headed by Davie Pina, John Williams, and Andy Beckstoffer of the Rutherford Dust Society has worked with a wide range of stakeholders to develop a long-range sustainability program for the Napa River as it passes through the Rutherford AVA, between Zinfandel Lane and the Oakville Cross Road, south of St. Helena.

Twenty-three local growers have volunteered to sacrifice nearly 20 acres of top-quality vineyards in the heart of Napa Valley's finest AVA to restore the river to a more natural condition. “Our mission is to work collaboratively with neighbors and agencies to stabilize river banks, reduce the impacts of flooding, protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitat, reduce Pierce's disease pressure on vineyards, and provide ongoing education about the river and its watershed,” says Beckstoffer of the project. “Our goal is a living river.”

Since the early 1970s, the river has cut down as much as 15 feet, creating a simplified channel with degraded fish habitat and severely eroding banks, depleting the riparian vegetation buffer and placing property at risk. Despite these conditions, the Rutherford Reach remains the most critical spawning habitat for Chinook salmon in the Napa River. The salmon are re-establishing a population in the watershed after having been absent for nearly a century. “This is a pioneering effort, to my knowledge the most ambitious river restoration project to date proposed on private property in California,” says Hayes. “The Rutherford Reach Restoration Project is enhancing four-and-a-half miles of the Napa River from the perspective of both protecting private property and the river's ecological value.” In the first two seasons of construction, landowners have re-dedicated $2.1 million dollars’ worth of prime vineyard land to the river corridor, sacrificing $1.6 million in grape production over the next 20 years.

“The landowners of the Rutherford Reach are investing in the future,” says Hayes, “preserving the historic legacy of Rutherford grapes and wildlife for future generations.” It is truly a private-public partnership that works to the benefit of property and the public trust. Public funding critical to advancing this initiative has been provided by the California Department of Fish and Game, the Coastal Conservancy, the State Water Board, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation Salmonid Habitat Conservation Fund. Napa County matches all funds raised on behalf of the project and is overseeing construction, which began in 2009 and is being conducted in phases. In 2009, the David Guggenhime Family and the Quintessa Estate were the first properties to undergo restoration construction. This past summer, The Ranch Winery / Sutter Home, Frog’s Leap, Caymus and Carpy-Conolly provided for the wholesale setback of agricultural berms into valuable vineyard land to widen the riparian corridor, create refuge for young salmon and steelhead, and attenuate flooding. In 2011, Emmolo, Bettinelli/Mee, Round Pond, Honig, and Sequoia Grove will join their neighbors in the river restoration effort, completing the first half of the project between Zinfandel Lane and the Rutherford Cross Road, and at Sequoia Grove vineyards. Design plans are being advanced for the remainder of the Project reach, with an implementation completion goal of 2014.

Landowners along the Rutherford Reach are dedicated to restoring the river for future generations and are supporting Project maintenance through a joint venture with Napa County. The Rutherford Dust Society’s River Restoration Project has garnered Congressional acknowledgment for its pioneering work on the Napa River as it flows through the Rutherford AVA. Congressional Certificates of Recognition were given to landowners and participating agencies who have made significant and personal contributions to the restoration of the Napa River, including donation of productive vineyard land, lost production revenue for the life of the project, and other costs in time, labor and materials in preparation for, and during the restoration planning and construction process.

About the Rutherford Dust Society

Founded in 1994, the Rutherford Dust Society’s mission is to encourage and promote the highest quality standards in grape growing and wine making in the Rutherford Viticultural Area, and to gain recognition for this quality through education of the membership and public. To that end, the Rutherford Dust Society hosts several yearly events, including the Chili Ball, the best “Block Party” in Napa Valley, and A Day in the Dust, a trade and media tasting of current vintages. To promote the health of the Napa River, the Rutherford Dust Society formed the Rutherford Dust Restoration Team, a group of vintners and growers who are working together to restore the river as it passes through the Rutherford AVA.