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Crop Pest to Force 21-Year-Old Ojai Winery to Close


After three years of struggling to eradicate a bug-borne disease, the county's only grape-growing winery is going out of business, victim of a pest that has devastated wine crops throughout the state.

"We determined there is no winning at this point," said Mark Maitland, co-owner of the 21-year-old Old Creek Ranch Winery in Ojai. "There is nothing we can do to solve this problem and we have to get out from under it."

In 1997, the owners thought they might stem the tide against the glassy-winged sharpshooter by bulldozing 15 of their 20 acres. Now the remaining five acres are beginning to look bald, with every fourth plant removed, and the living ones show the tell-tale signs of the pernicious Pierce's disease.

The leaves are turning brown around the edges and the grapes slowly become raisins on the vine as the plants die from lack of nutrients and water.

"We're heading down the road of Temecula, and there is nothing to do to stop it," Maitland said.

About a quarter of Temecula's 3,000 acres of wine grapes have been ravaged since the pest moved in about three years ago.

The half-inch-long bug looks like a flea but acts like a mosquito, acquiring the disease by feeding on a sick plant and spreading it to a healthy plant when it inserts its brown helmet-like head into the stem. Within a year, the disease will invade an entire young plant, choking it off from its water source and causing the plant to die of dehydration.

Xylella fastidiosa, the bacterium that causes Pierce's disease, has always thrived in the hot dry areas ideal for wine growing. But it affected few wineries, because there was no pest that systematically disseminated the bacteria. In the past three years, however, the pest has proliferated, spreading the sickness like wildfire.

Because Ventura County has fewer than 30 acres of wine grapes, the pest and the disease are considered to be of minimal impact to local agriculture. Several other county wineries import grapes to make their product and are not affected by the pest..

"It is much more significant to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County than it is here," said Dave Buettner, the county's chief deputy agricultural commissioner.

But the bug has hurt more than local grape growers. Because it is carried in broadleaf plants, area nurseries have had shipments of foliage returned when eggs were found.

The county recently received $267,000 from the state Department of Food and Agriculture to pay the salaries of four inspectors who look for egg masses on plants that may be shipped to areas that grow grapes.

"There are a slew of hosts for the pests," Buettner said.

He said eggs have been found at every nursery that has been inspected.

Last month the federal government declared an agricultural emergency over the pest and gave California $36.3 million to combat it. Southern California has become a key battleground in the war to keep the insect from spreading throughout the state.

But for Old Creek Ranch Winery, the inspectors won't help. Co-owner John Whitman said the costs of running a winery were kept down by the winery growing its own grapes, but he said the owners cannot afford to keep their doors open any longer.

"We had plans to expand it up there," Whitman said, looking wistfully at a grass-strewn hill above the vineyards.

The vineyard's last day for wine tasting will be the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

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