Illegal growers bring crime and environmental degradation to the mountains.
Even as the snow is leaving the high country, criminals are entering the forest, preparing for another season of crime and environmental degradation.
Bringing fertilizer, plastic pipe and chainsaws, often on public land but sometimes on the land of unsuspecting property owners, they hack at natural vegetation, alter watercourses, spread fertilizers and sprinkle pesticides.
Called "vine heads" or "grape growers" they spread out to plant their cash crop: grapes. Just container stock now, by fall the vines will bear lush round fruit, destined for clandestine "wine labs" in the valley. There, the fruit is pressed, treated and aged, sometimes for years. The labs often leave their own problems in the form of oaken casks and barrels, discarded in the canyons and cut in half and sold through garden supply houses as planter containers.
"It’s reaching a crisis proportions," said Chris Issmonger, spokesperson for the USFS. "Public lands are being abused, average citizens are being harassed. Traps and poisons kill wildlife." Issmonger explained, "Up here we mostly find a hybrid of Riesling and Sylvaner, or Grenache, which grow well at high altitudes. Grapes need a lot of care, everything from bears to fungus eat grapes. It needs pesticides, fungicides, oils and lots of nitrogen. Eventually all that finds its way into local streams, polluting them terribly. Not as bad as the waters of the Central Valley, but still bad." Issmonger concluded, "it would be different if they were growing something that didn’t need a lot of chemicals, like hemp, but grapes need to be pampered to find a market value."
Grape "nugs" from a mountain grow. Photo from Wiki (support Wiki)
Law enforcement admits they can barely keep on top of the problem. Ben Trinken, spokesperson for California Department of Fermentationals says, "there is a market for table wine and varietals, people will meet that market, at a cost to our public lands, and our school kids."
Some suggest that legalizing wine might reduce the environmental costs, and take the money motive out of production by criminals. It could then be regulated, much as cannabis is now.
But, Rodney Baakcide, representative of seventeen law enforcement agencies around the state says, "that’s a bad idea. It sends the wrong message. Cabernet Sauvignon is a gateway drug."
Until some solution is found, hikers in the backcountry are advised to avoid areas which could contain vineyards.