Where Ducks Go Deluxe

California vintner Sam Sebastiani has built a lush preserve for migratory birds
May 16, 1993

Say you're a duck flying south for the winter and you need a place to stop for the night. You don't need much—still water, reeds to hide among, bugs and aquatic plants for meals and an absence of men with guns. The next time you're flying over California's Sonoma Valley, stop in at Viansa, the winery owned by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani. It's a sort of Motel 6 for ducks, just 45 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. They'll leave a light on for you.

Sebastiani, 52, a member of one of the Sonoma Valley's oldest winemaking families, is turning 98 acres of his 175-acre property into a preserve and returning seasonally flooded pastureland to its original state—a year-round wetland. With the help of Ducks Unlimited Inc., a waterfowl and wetland conservation group, Sebastiani has built levees on the north and west sides of his plot to retain water left behind during seasonal flooding. (This past winter's torrential rains gave the project a terrific boost.) Reeds, trees and rushes have taken root around the edges of the three-quarter-mile-long pond contained by the levees. Yet to be installed are water-control mechanisms that will keep the water level in the pond at a depth of two to 24 inches, depending on the season, and will bring in runoff from the hills to the west. Step by squishy step, a marsh is coming to life.

A recent survey at the height of the spring migration counted more than 6,500 birds (37 different species) as visitors to Viansa. Turtles and frogs also wander the muddy reed beds, and occasionally a fish jumps in the pond. "We'll have to keep working on it, of course," says Sebastiani. "You can't force nature, you can just fan it a little."

It took Sebastiani four years to get the project under way. In 1988 he and Vicki bought the property that would become Viansa (Vicki ANd SAm). Besides buying prime vineyard land to grow Italian varietal grapes, the couple also purchased 98 acres of marsh, knowing that it was unsuitable for viticulture. "Right from the start. I wanted to do something environmentally productive," Sam says. "I just didn't know what."

A friend suggested that he contact Ducks Unlimited, the organization that was founded in 1937 to protect the breeding grounds of waterfowl. (In recent years the organization has focused on preserving wetlands for the sake of their inhabitants.) In California alone, DU has acquired or developed more than 53,000 acres, most of which is used for a variety of public activities.

For the Viansa project DU will have spent $150,000 building the marsh's levees and water-control system and guiding Sebastiani through a maze of government regulation. "The difficulty we had in obtaining the necessary permits and permissions was inversely proportional to the power of the level of government we were dealing with," says Sebastiani. Thus the feds were an easy sell and the state was enthusiastic, but many of the county authorities and local people threw up temporary roadblocks along the way.

For instance, Sebastiani's farming neighbors worried that the new marsh would flood their property, too. They were also concerned about huge flocks of hungry birds devouring their crops. And a small airport up the highway from Viansa wondered whether transient birds would interfere with the flight paths of planes. Some landowners worried that the area's property values would go down.

All those fears were put to rest, and after 18 months of negotiations, hearings, studies and meetings, work finally began on the levees last October. Waterfowl are already using the area, and final work on the wetlands should be completed by late summer.

Sebastiani's interest in creating a bird-friendly environmental project was inherited from his father, August, who founded the family wine business. The older Sebastiani was also a noted bird breeder who kept an immense aviary in Sonoma. Sam says that as a child he was put in charge of keeping the family duck ponds clean. "I said then that if I ever got involved with ducks again, I'd arrange it so I wouldn't have to clean up after them," he says.

Along with creating a burgeoning wetland, Sam and Vicki are trying to expand their wine business. On a small hill overlooking the marsh site sits the winery, a villa modeled after Sam's grandfather's house in Italy. Inside, beneath huge pine beams, are wine-tasting stations and counters laden with the Cal-Italian-style food Vicki sells to winery visitors. The villa is surrounded by grape arbors, and the slopes below are covered by vines that just this year will produce their first crops of grapes for the winery. Tables beneath the arbors offer patrons a breathtaking view of the wetland below, with the Sonoma Valley spreading out beyond it. It is an enticing setting, one that draws wine tasters in droves from the Bay Area.

All of which raises an obvious question. Was the marsh also designed to bring in business? "It's a win-win situation," says Vicki. "It's good for the birds and the wildlife, and it's good for us."

A walk around the marsh with Sam reveals why he has devoted thousands of hours and 98 acres of land to the preserve. "Look at that!" he says, pointing to four inconspicuous wilted stalks in the mud. "I didn't know the grass was taking there." He gently guides a visitor's binoculars so they focus on a cinnamon teal, black-winged stilts, a western pond turtle and, finally, a low-flying egret.

"You want to know my motivation? Just look at the birds. They're here, and my wife and kids are here," he says. "This is where we want to stay."

If you happen to be a duck, it's where you might want to stay for a while, too.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESSSam and Vicki and their kids eat lunch and enjoy a bird's-eye view of the preserve. PHOTOJOHN BURGESSViansa's tranquil pond is great blue heron heaven.

James Buckley Jr. is a sports columnist for The Santa Barbara Independent in California.