Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, April 23, 2015
Recently, I found myself in a packed courtroom on a Friday morning in Ukiah. Thankfully, I wasn’t fighting a speeding ticket or doing my civic duty by sitting on a jury; I came to witness Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Richard Henderson hear from the lawyers in the matter of Scaramella vs. the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors.
The plaintiff, Mark Scaramella, is suing Mendocino County and named three farmers as Parties of Real Interest, claiming that wind machines are a noise nuisance which should be banned. The County has replied, among other issues, that the wind machines are an established farming practice protected by the county Right To Farm ordinance.
The three Anderson Valley neighbors of Scaramella named in the suit were Pennyroyal Farm, V. Sattui Winery, and Foursight Wines.
Scaramella was seeking an injunction to stop the use of wind machines immediately, and encouraged opponents of the fans to show up at the hearing, publicizing his request in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Fans are used in vineyards to mitigate damage from frost, and effectively replace the use of water to do the same job, which is a responsible vineyard management tool, especially in these times of critical water shortage owing to the continuing drought in California.
The case was a battle of competing interests, the right to be free of noise pollution and the County’s Right to Farm ordinance.
Mendocino County has a noise ordinance in place, prohibiting sound in excess of 40 decibels (dB). 40 dB is roughly equivalent to the sound produced by a babbling brook, a refrigerator hum, a library, or the lowest ambient sound of an urban area.
Because of the size of the crowd gathered Judge Henderson made a few introductory remarks to the assembled crowd, noting that many were likely Anderson Valley residents opposed to the fans, which drew an audible dissent from the majority of those gathered, before he went on to note that it seemed there were many farmers who were there to support the use of the fans, and then asking that only the lawyers speak and that the courtroom remain silent throughout the remainder of the proceedings.
I took advantage of an offer from the court clerk and moved to the jury box to sit, rather than continue to stand, and enjoyed a great view of the participants.
Judge Henderson noted that his tentative ruling had taken into account all filings thus far, but the ruling he referred to had not yet been shared with the lawyers, so a brief recess allowed copies to be made and lawyers to read the ruling.
The Ukiah Daily Journal’s Justine Frederiksen reported on April 10 that the tentative ruling read, “The court finds that the interim harm that (Mark Scaramella) may suffer, (estimated to be) 10 nights of sleep interruption of deprivation, is clearly outweighed by the probable damage that would be caused to grape vines,” and that prohibiting the use of agricultural fans during frost events, which can “kill all actively growing parts of a grape vine and will reduce yields from between 50 percent to 100 percent, could result in losses measured in the tens of millions of dollars.” Frederiksen ended her piece noting, “Judge Henderson [had] said Friday he was inclined to favor his tentative ruling, but would be releasing a formal ruling in writing soon.”
I have deep empathy for those vineyard neighbors throughout California’s wine valleys missing sleep on some nights, but I feel this is a good tentative decision. Wineries attempting to use wind instead of water during this drought to prevent catastrophic crop frost damage should be afforded every reasonable accommodation. I feared that this suit about fans could lead to further Right to Farm erosions, possible battles regarding water use and other farming practices in the future.
The judge noted that the plaintiff had not presented any real evidence of a noise ordinance violation, no certified dB readings had been taken or offered.
I thought, absent any real evidence to the contrary, that a dB level above allowed might not be owing to any one farmer’s practices, but cumulative, and while the would be sleeper is impacted, no one grower might actually be in violation of noise ordinances. It is also entirely possible that each farm exceeds noise restriction with their fans, and cumulatively it is a nightmare. I do not know. My position as a wine guy has me on the side of growers, surprising no one, I expect. This suit, to me, could be seen as an attack on Mendocino County’s largest legal industry.
I used to snore like a chainsaw, definitely well in excess of 40 dB, and more than one partner could well empathize with Scaramella. My high school best friend told me she actually thought about killing me to end the noise. I gave her my iPod and ear buds, and dialed up some music for her, and she was able to sleep. Major dental work last November ended my frightful snoring, but I well remember the murderous look in her eyes over her sleep deprivation.
I have other friends who live near vineyards and tell me that the fans are loud, but that they would rather live near healthy and profitable vineyards than not, and find ways to counter the occasional use of fans, from ear plugs to noise cancelling headphones.
I hope that Judge Henderson’s tentative ruling remains intact when crafting his final ruling. I also hope that Scaramella reads this: Walmart sells Panasonic noise cancelling headphones for $31, Best Buy sells Sony noise cancelling headphones for $50, and top of the line Bose earbuds or headphones, the Cadillac of noise cancellers, are $300 direct from Bose. I used to have a pair of Bose when I flew each week for business to wine tradeshows, and even the sound of propellers right outside the passenger cabin were masked into absence. I think an old girlfriend might have stolen mine, to make living with a new snoring boyfriend tolerable.
Tomorrow, Friday, April 24, 2015 is International Sauvignon Blanc Day. Originally created by social media marketer Rick Bakas while at St. Supery, the world wide celebration of Sauvignon Blanc has grown, and countless wine lovers will buy and taste the variety, tweeting and posting words and pictures online using the hash tag #SauvBlanc to be part of a one day global social media trend.
Locally, McFadden will pour for the public a new Sauvignon Blanc release, from the 2014 vintage. It is the best Sauvignon Blanc I’ve tasted from McFadden, and I hope you can visit Eugene tomorrow in McFadden’s tasting room in Hopland for a complimentary tasting between 10am-5pm, bringing your cell phone or other mobile device to post while you are tasting #SauvBlanc – and if you can’t make it to Hopland, then grab a bottle from any producer in a local store and join the fun.