Environmentalists and Winemakers Square Off in Napa Valley

NAPA, Calif. (CN) – Famed the world over, the Napa Valley is draped in picturesque hillside vineyards.

A magnet for nearly 4 million visitors per year, the residents who live here swell with pride when you mention some of the world’s finest wines that are produced in one of the most productive and arguably the most well-known viticultural areas in North America.

But all is not well in the bucolic valley these days.

Embittered by a fight spanning half a decade, the community has been divided into two camps — one which argues for the need for stronger regulations to curtail vineyards’ encroachment into the oak woodlands native to the area and the other which argues such regulations are overreach and an affront to the single biggest economic driver in the region.

“The community is miserably divided,” said Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon during a meeting on Tuesday.

Dillon and her four fellow board members were tasked with crafting and approving the Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance, a controversial new law that seeks to conserve trees and forested areas while improving water quality for the many creeks that feed the Napa River.

When after 10 hours of deliberation, the board unanimously adopted a version of the ordinance subject to frequent amendments throughout the contentious process, the reaction of those assembled was muted.

No one seemed particularly happy.

Environmentalists thought it was too watered down to be meaningful.

Ross Middlemiss, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, called it “a fig leaf at a time when Napa County desperately needs strong new safeguards against reckless vineyard conversions.”

Those on the economic development side said the ordinance could kill the golden goose.

“Slope soils make the best wines,” said Chuck Wagner, a wine maker based in Rutherford in the heart of the Napa Valley. “Passage of this ordinance means others will surpass the quality of the Napa Valley Cabernet.”

Officials say they forged a much needed compromise, but hold little hope that it will mollify the combativeness that has grown up around the issue.

“I don’t have confidence that what we did will stop the divisiveness,” said a wearied Supervisor Belia Ramos after the vote was cast.

Partly it’s because what fuels the discord is the same the drives much of the broader political polarization in the United States — resentment of the elite, claims of public officials being bought off and a callous indifference to the environment and the rights of future generations.

“They’re tearing out our forests,” said Jim Wilson, a resident of Napa County and one of the primary drivers of the attempt to stop the conversions of native oak woodlands into vineyards.

Wilson says about 500 acres of forests are destroyed per year, making way for the array of vine-adorned trellises that blanket much of the region.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, vineyard production has grown by 45 percent since 1991, with about 30,000 acres of the woodlands still vulnerable.

“For the most part, the valley floor is all planted out,” Wilson said. “If winemakers are looking to expand, they have to do so into the forested hillsides.”

Many in the viticulture industry say the concerns are much ado about nothing.

“Current regulations are already among the most stringent in the United States,” said Tom Davies, a winemaker who owns V. Sattui winery.

Still others outside of the viticulture industry balked at the regulations preventing property owners from cutting down trees, particularly as the worst wildfire the region has seen in many decades ripped through the region in 2017, torching about 50,000 acres and killing 6 people.

“We lost our house in the Atlas Fire,” said David Johnston, who lives in a rural area of the county. “We perform fire protection in terms of managing our trees and the underbrush but having to ask permission to take these things is too far.”

But Wilson said the Atlas Fire affected his property too, but that it’s not a sufficient rationale to plunder the natural ecology.  

Mike Hackett, another Napa County resident, said he and Wilson have been working on the issue for at least five years.

In 2015, they crafted a ballot initiative to protect the woodlands which the county eventually challenged in court. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the county prevailed.

But Hackett was undaunted, and said he sat down with many winegrowers in the region to forge a compromise. That compromise was Measure C, but Hackett said a lot of the local winegrowers got cold feet about backing it when a few of the corporate winemakers threw their weight in behind it.

“There are some very wealthy corporate interests,” Hackett said. “They own a lot of the wineries around here and they have a tremendous amount of clout.”

Nevertheless, Hackett and Wilson proceeded with Measure C, raised money and after a hard fought campaign, it was voted down by a slim margin of 641 votes in the 2018 midterm election.

“18,000 people voted in favor of it,” Hackett said. “So I think the community realized the issue wasn’t going away.”

Judging by the comments of many of the approximately 65 people who gave public comment during the proceedings, the issue will continue to gin up dissension and debate on both sides of the issue for the foreseeable future.

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