In the late 1980’s, Sam and Vicki Sebastiani purchased 175 acres of former ranchland south of Sonoma in the Carneros wine region with the intention of creating a small, family-run winery and food marketplace. In 1988, when plans for the vineyard were well underway, Sam, an avid conservationist, realized that the 90 acres of land on the eastern side of his property—which were perpetually too wet for planting vineyards or crops—could simultaneously be restored into a semi-permanent productive wetland. Thus came the vision for “Viansa Winery Wetlands.”
Preferring not to seek taxpayer assistance, Sam sought out the help of Ducks Unlimited, the largest, non-profit, private conservator of wetlands in the United States. In 1990, Sam proposed the project to the Western Regional Office of Ducks Unlimited in Sacramento. A team of DU officials, biologists and construction contractors visited the site and ascertained that it was an ideal location in which to create a near-permanent wetland. Initially, the cost of such an undertaking was estimated to be around $50,000 and construction of the marsh was to take about 60 days to complete. Ducks Unlimited agreed to fund the project and Sebastiani created two special duck preserve wines, donating a dollar from the sale of each bottle to DU for wetland protection and creation projects throughout the United States.
Unfortunately, as soon as the project was fully planned, state, local and federal governmental procedure turned these efforts of private conservation into a frustrating series of obstacles. Months of delays stretched into years, tripling the combined cost of legal, consulting, mitigation construction, and report fees. The first hurdle was the county permitting process, which began in the summer of 1990 and continued for 18 months thereafter. On a federal level, advisors at Ducks Unlimited warned Sebastiani that Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the United States, would, at the very least, delay the process of permit approval from the federal government. Finally, in November 1992, with all the necessary zoning permits, changes and approvals granted from state, county and federal officials, construction of the Viansa Wetlands began. By working closely with California Ducks Unlimited biologists, design engineers and construction teams and with advice from California Department of Fish and Game biologists, Sebastiani ultimately realized his long-held vision of constructing a variable-depth wetland on what were seasonally flooded agricultural fields.
Despite the political hurdles and local contentiousness the Sebastianis faced in realizing this long-held dream, they managed to create a productive wetland with an enormous diversity of species. Over 156 species of birds have been observed on the wetlands since 1993 and up to 10,000 waterfowl have been seen in the Viansa wetland on a single day. Among the more rare appearances are the White-faced Ibis, Laysan Albatross, Tri-colored Blackbird, Canvasback ducks, Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons. As one official from Ducks Unlimited has stated on the matter,Hopefully as word of the Viansa Wetlands spreads throughout California, and beyond, those who have excoriated vineyards for being environmentally destructive will learn what excellent stewards of wildlife and habitat vineyards can be.