Private Conservation Spotlight: Viansa Winery Wetlands

Published August 1, 1999

Sam Sebastiani, third-generation heir to one of California’s most noted and historic wine families, Sebastiani Vineyards, decided in the late 1980s to create a new, small, family-run winery and food marketplace that would promote the wines and foods of Tuscany.

So what? Another winery in California is hardly news.

But Viansa is a winery with a difference. Located on former ranchland south of Sonoma in the Caneros wine region, highway signs advertise “Viansa Winery & Marketplace: Wines–Italian Kitchen–Wetlands.”

Yes, wetlands.

Sam Sebastiani is also a wetlands proprietor and a wetlands maker. A conservationist and waterfowl enthusiast, he is also an avid duck hunter and member of Ducks Unlimited.

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, Sebastiani decided to create a wetlands 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.

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

Working closely with biologists at California Ducks Unlimited, design engineers, and construction teams, and with the advice and encouragement of some California Department of Fish and Game officials and biologists, Sebastiani constructed–at considerable expense–a nearly permanent, variable-depth wetlands on what had been either seasonally flooded or dry grassy 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 safe nesting sites.

Old gates on the Sonoma Creek levee were repaired to regulate and manage water levels in the wetlands. As early winter rains began to fill the area, native wetlands vegetation quickly reestablished itself from the dormant seed bank in the soils. Vegetation there now ranges from dense stands of bulrushes and cattails, through dozens of shorter sedges, grasses, and flowers, to submerged aquatic vegetation.

The result was spectacular. Sebastiani created a productive wetlands 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. The Viansa Winery Wetlands have been recognized for their significance by the National Watchable Wildlife Program (initiated by Defenders of Wildlife) in the California Wildlife Viewing Guide.

Prior to Sebastiani’s completion of the wetlands projects, when the area was simply flooded fields at the height of the rainy season, and dry grasses and weeds for most of the year, perhaps 35 bird species utilized the site. A detailed 1994 survey by Ducks Unlimited showed that the number had increased to about 148 species. As the wetlands and vegetation have matured, and as an extensive tree-planting program on the adjacent uplands has taken hold, additional species of birds are being attracted to the area, with the total now over 156.

Already, nesting activity by 44 bird species in the area has been documented or is suspected. One of the most exciting discoveries was nesting activity by the Tricolored Blackbird, listed as a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Game.

There have also been some spectacular and unexpected peak counts of waterfowl in the winter and early spring. Over 10,000 have been counted on the 90 acres of water in a single day. 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. While not especially wary or difficult to hunt, it is a large, striking-looking duck, 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, when the marsh-grown birds from the U.S.-Canadian prairies would arrive to fatten up on the aquatic celery beds of the Chesapeake. But decades of over-hunting, long periods of drought, conversion of prairie wetlands to agricultural fields, and pollution and turbidity in the Chesapeake Bay produced a long-term decline in Canvasback populations and a closed hunting season for many years. Only in recent years has there been any sign of recovery.

Some 35,000 Canvasback winter on the broad reaches of San Francisco Bay. About 10 percent of them, 3,000 or so, regularly rest and feed on Viansa’s little marsh. One day in March 1995, approximately 8,000 Canvasback were crowded onto those 90 acres of man-made habitat. With the Bay and its associated wetlands covering some 1,000 square miles, nearly one-quarter of the total wintering population sought sustenance and shelter on Sam Sebastiani’s little 90-acre artificial habitat. Quite a testimonial!

R.J. Smith is a senior scholar with the Center for Private Conservation, a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.