Friday, June 1, 2018

Bohemian Magazine says sun is setting on Napa

                                                                                                                                                              
                                                           
Napa Sunset
In book three of his trilogy, James Conaway writes of Napa's decline
by Jonah Risking
May 29, 2018
    The traffic is horrendous, especially on weekends. The noise can be deafening on country lanes where big machines rip up the earth. Vineyards have spread everywhere, Pinot and Cabernet have never been more plentiful, and pesticides and herbicides have shown up in creeks and streams.
    In a nutshell, that's the Napa County story, though the Mondavi clan and the folks at Yountville's Domain Chandon—which is French- owned—along with David Abreu and the notorious John Bremer, insist that they bring culture and civilization to a backward land and hand out millions to community groups. To be sure, Napa makes great wine. But at what cost to the land and to the people? That's the question.
    James Conaway's muckraking tour de force Napa at Last light: America's Eden in an Age of Calamity recounts the secrets, the backroom deals and the hillside devastation that has shocked citizens and persuaded some winemakers and grape growers to call for reform. The book arrived in stores in March, three months before the June 5 ballot on Measure C. Widely read, it has strengthened the pro-C forces, though it has also helped fuel the anti-C folks. 
    Where Conaway's books are concerned, there's no neutrality. Indeed, his words can be intoxicating, especially when he writes about wine as the beverage that "sustains kings, poets, politicians, priests, lovers, idealists, the sick, the stricken, and all manner of rascals."
    Measure C—known as the Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018—aims to limit hillside development for grape vines and "protect the water quality of Napa County's streams, watersheds, wetlands and forests, and safeguard the public health, safety and welfare of the County's residents."
    Ironically, Conaway—arguably the author who has done more than any other single writer to raise awareness about the environment in Napa—can't cast a ballot on June 5.
    Born and raised in Memphis, he divides his time between Virginia and Washington, D.C., though he often explores Napa County, where he has friends and some enemies too. He has been drawn to Napa because of its spectacular beauty, and also because he sees Napa as emblematic of California. In 2002's The Far Side of Eden, the second in the trilogy, he writes that "Napa Valley was California in microcosm."
    In his latest book, he gives voice to the chorus of citizens who want to take back their county from what some see as the dominating influence of the wine industry. "To some, I'm a local hero," says Conaway. "To others, I'm an enemy of the people."
    The battle over Measure C, which could have implications for vineyard development in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, has been a hard-fought campaign with its share of mudslinging. Misinformation, disinformation and outright lies have defined much of the campaign. So it's not surprising that Conaway has been demonized in some, though not all, viticultural circles.
    A dozen high-profile grape growers and winemakers support the initiative. They include Andy Beckstoffer, one of the largest landowners in the county, and Warren Winiarski at Stag's Leap, which was one of the winners at the 1976 Paris tasting that put Napa Valley on the international wine map.
Opponents of Measure C have insisted that if it passes it will undermine private property rights and prevent future farming in agricultural watersheds.
    Vintner Stuart Smith, who created a website called Stop Measure C, says, "The initiative was written by two people and lawyers in a backroom." Smith adds that you have to have "economic wealth" in order to create "effective environmental protection." (See this week's Swirl, p12, for more from Smith.) Conaway calls comments like Smith's "environmental McCarthyism."
    Grassroots supporters of C have launched their own counter-offensive. In April, lawyer and Soda Creek Vineyards owner Yeoryios C. Apallas, filed a lawsuit that prompted the Napa County Superior Court to order the removal of false statements from the official voter information pamphlet. "I could not sit by while opponents deliberately misstated the facts to confuse voters into rejecting this important measure," Apallas said.
    Among the most blatant misrepresentations was one which claimed that "measure C will prevent homeowners from making even the smallest changes to their land." That statement, and others like it, were removed from the pamphlet for Napa voters, though not all the misstatements were removed. Moreover, the campaign against the ballot measure agreed to pay $54,000 for the legal fees incurred by the "Yes on C" forces.
    But the court ruling didn't prevent the proliferation of "No on C" signs that dot the landscape and which insist that, if enacted, the law would lead to more traffic, higher taxes and negative impacts on farmers and agriculture.
    The signs for and against the ballot measure haven't surprised Conaway. Napa at Last Light completes the saga he began in 1990 with Napa: The Story of an American Eden and continued with The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley. In the second volume, Conaway notes that "tourists devour the thing they love." Sixteen years later, he says Eden is now all but lost, though if Measure C passes, he believes it will help to restore some of the original paradise.
    Reviewers of the book, such as San Francisco Chronicle's wine, beer and spirits writer Esther Mobley, have insisted that Conaway's voice is now louder and angrier than it has been in the past. Attentive readers will also notice that Conaway is sadder than before about the triumph of money and power in the Napa Valley. One might subtitle Napa at Last Light, not "Grapes of Wrath," but "Grapes of Sorrow."
    In the third volume of the trilogy, Conaway uses his skills as a writer of fiction—he's the author of three novels—to create memorable, real-life folk heroes, such as the aristocratic, French-born global wine baron Jean-Charles Boisset, who owns dozens of wineries, including the famed Buena Vista in Sonoma. His wife, Gina, belongs to the legendary Gallo clan.
    Some of Conaway's sources are on the record, though not all. He calls one man "Deep Roots" and intentionally conceals descriptions that would give away his identity. He calls another source "the attorney." Outing him would cost the lawyer his reputation.
    Geoff Ellsworth was a willing and a candid source. A St. Helena council member, artist and supporter of Measure C, Ellsworth has lived in Napa County for 50 years. For decades, he watched the slow, steady chipping away of the forests, the privatization of watersheds and the spread of roads, vineyards, wineries, tasting rooms, event centers and estate homes. Like Conaway, Ellsworth decries what he calls the "erosion of democracy" in Napa. He worries that if the dominance of the industry goes unchecked in his hometown, it can happen anywhere in the United States.
    On a hot afternoon, as I tour the valley with him, Ellsworth says that while he believes the ballot measure will pass, he also argues that "neither drought, nor flood, nor fire will keep corporations from gobbling up resources in Napa."
    As a kid and young man who grew up in St. Helena—his parents supplied equipment to the wine industry—Ellsworth assumed that Napa County would accept limits on tourism and stop the expansion of vineyards on steep slopes. He also assumed that citizens would decry the loss of habitat for endangered species like the spotted owl.
    "We're nearly at the point where advocating for clean water for everyone is beginning to look revolutionary," Ellsworth says. "It looks like Napa is turning into the 'valley of the oligarchs.'"
    His friend and feisty ally, Kellie Anderson—who once worked for the wine industry as well as for the Napa County agricultural commissioner—describes some wineries as recreational playthings for wealthy owners and absentee landlords.
    "Sometimes a vineyard comes with a Ferrari and a trophy wife," Anderson says. "Meanwhile, watersheds are destroyed and citizens are screwed."
    Like Ellsworth and Anderson, Conaway wants to stop, or at least slow down, the runaway wine and tourism juggernaut before more of what makes Napa special is lost. "The time has come to say 'No More,'" Conaway writes in his new book.
    During a phone conversation in which his Memphis accent gives away his Southern roots, he says, "I like Pinot, though I can't afford Napa Cab, which wine makers now call 'rocket juice.'" (A bottle of premium Napa Cabernet can easily cost $100.)
Conaway is optimistic, but he can't help but see doom and gloom. He wants things to be right, but he imagines they'll go wrong. So he's divided in his feelings about Napa, and both pleased and alarmed at what he sees in neighboring grape-growing, winemaking counties.
    "Sonoma County still feels rural, and that's good," Conaway says. "But Sonoma will probably go the way of Napa. It's just too damned attractive for big money."
    Indeed, whether C wins or loses, pockets of Napa's beauty will endure. Is that enough?
Napa at Last Light ends with the sound of a screaming hawk and a prophetic view of a time when "many are likely to pass though these lovely mountains and will pause as they do now, nature-struck, all momentarily struck by the beauty of this place.”
                                      *
    Jonah Raskin is the author of 'Field Days: a Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California' and an occasional contributor to the ‘Bohemian.' 

                                    
To order Napa at Last Light go to:

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What Napa must do to survive

                                                                             

After considerable reflection I have come up with a list of things I believe Napa must do if it is to hang onto what’s left of its physical beauty and social cohesion. Most require some legal assistance and direct action, and all are discussed or illustrated in some degree in my book, Napa at Last Light. But the determining factor in accomplishing them is public outrage, and public action.

     1. Take steps to prevent the privatizing of public water sources.
     2. Using drones, private planes and/or satellites, measure carbon and other emissions of all individual wineries to establish a baseline that can be used in broad on-line mailings and future legal actions.
     3. Pass contribution limits in county races that equalize a playing field heavily weighted toward corporate dominance of Napa’s barely functioning democratic processes.
     4. Start a boycott of wineries and corporations that work to elect candidates inclined to do their bidding, rather than pursue the general good. Today the internet is a powerful tool with which to find and inform possible allies all over the United States and affect sales in ways boycotts of the past could not. Publicize not just the names of the wineries but also their individual wines and encourage boycotting all who ignore the law, exploit their power, and conduct campaigns of disinformation.
    5.  Urge - nowadays that of necessity means “sue” - the county to force reconsideration of the change in the definition of agriculture includes marketing and by implication food service, entertainment, and much more. This was a stealth move to cripple a  sacrosanct law that must now be restored.
               
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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Major media covering Napa's seminal land fight

From The Guardian:


Is Napa growing too much wine? Residents seek to preserve treasured land
Industry insiders and local environmentalists fear agricultural development has become untenable, threatening the valley’s future
by Charlotte Simmonds in Napa Valley
     The rise of Napa began with an upset. Warren Winiarski would know – his wine, a cabernet sauvignon, was a firm underdog at a legendary 1976 blind tasting in Paris, which pitted the best of France against the little-known California region.
    His winery, Stag’s Leap, shocked the wine world by taking top honors. “It broke the glass ceiling that France had imposed on everyone,” he recalls. “People’s aspirations were liberated.”
    Today Winiarski, 89, is speaking not of liberation, but of limits. A growing coalition of industry veterans and longtime residents fear that Napa has become a victim of its own success, pointing to the ecological transformation of the valley floor from dense oak woodland to a sea of vine-wrapped trellises. And they are posing a thorny question: has a unique agricultural region reached a tipping point at which agriculture itself becomes the threat?
    “We’re not thinking ahead,” says Winiarski. “What’s at stake is a national treasure.”
    Against this backdrop, a local environmental initiative has sparked fierce debate. The effort, known as Measure C, would cap the amount of oak woodland that could be cleared for future vineyards – in effect limiting the growth of some of the world’s most famous wine brands.
    Napa Valley is small, just 30 miles long and five miles wide. Nearly 500 wineries now call this slim stretch home; it welcomes 3.5 million visitors a year. Global recognition has attracted big beverage companies. Tourists have clogged the narrow two-lane roads. Wealthy “lifestyle vintners” have scooped up second homes and attempted to build private helicopter pads
    “With great success came great money and outsiders,” explains James Conaway, a journalist and author who has been covering Napa since the 1980s. He describes the valley of 30 years ago as egalitarian and idealistic, a mixed agricultural community that raised wine alongside livestock and fruit trees. “Now it’s monoculture with a vengeance. Hundreds of miles of steel trellising holding up the vines from one end of the valley to the next. It has an industrial sheen.”
      Through the windows at Winiarski’s hilltop home, the transformation can be surveyed with ease. Vineyards stretch in all directions, rows of green as orderly as soldiers. The Silverado Trail, a famous wine tasting route, cuts a path to the west. To the east lie hills covered in oaks – trees that, Winariski points out, once carpeted the valley floor. 
    Napa’s oaks have become a flashpoint in the story of wine’s takeover. Ninety-five per cent of those on the valley floor have been felled, the vasty majority replaced by grapes. Now developers are eyeing the surrounding hillsides.
    Napa county has California’s densest concentration of oak woodland, thanks to the rich foliage that still carpets the hills. While much of it is privately owned and not public land in the classic sense, the woods are regarded as a public resource – a place of recreation and biodiversity, a vital part of the valley’s watershed and a fierce point of pride. But more than a third sits on potentially agriculturally productive soil – a 2010 management plan estimated that by 2030, up to 3,065 acres of mixed woodland would be lost due to vineyard development.
    “Forests are the best negative emissions technology we have,” says Jim Wilson, a former brewing quality manager at Anheuser-Busch and a leader in the band of grassroots activists behind Measure C. “Should Napa’s wine industry get a pass?”
    The measure is the culmination of years-long battle – one that’s involved knocking on doors, gathering thousands of signatures, and fighting an opposition which, according to a private newsletter seen by the Guardian, plans to spend nearly $1m to defeat it. Wilson’s side, by contrast, has raised just over $160,000. The effort has consumed his life, but then, Napa is his life.
    “I was born here in 1955,” Wilson says. “I raised a family on my wife’s ranch.” Their home – a patchwork of steep hills, creeks and woodlands on the county’s east side – is wild and uncultivated. During a walk beneath the oaks on a recent morning, his love for the forest is palpable.
    “When you take forest out, you negatively impact carbon sequestration,” he explains. The trees play a crucial role in capturing rain and replenishing groundwater, he said, while their root systems prevent soil erosion.
    Voters will decide on the proposal by 5 June, but the campaign has sharply divided the wine community. Veteran vintners like Winiarski have gone against the industry trade groups, who are united in their opposition. The Napa Valley Vintners, a key trade body, initially supported the measure but later pulled a surprise U-turn. Wilson and his co-organizers say pressure from powerful industry figures turned the tide. The Vintners declined to comment on the reversal, but an official statement said the majority of its members “conveyed opposition”.
     “This decision does not change our longstanding commitment to promoting, protecting and enhancing the Napa Valley and to upholding its goals of advocating for the local wine industry while preserving this special place for future generations,” it added.
    Ryan Klobas, the policy director for the Napa Valley Farm Bureau, warns the measure is “full of unintended consequences” and calls its proposed regulation too complicated for voters to grasp. “You’re asking everyone to become a technical expert overnight. This is an issue better left to the board of supervisors.”
    But longtime residents such as Ginny Simms – an environmental advocate who served on the county’s board of supervisors in the 1970s – believe corporate greed is at the root. Napa today is a multibillion-dollar industry, where global beverage companies such as Treasury Wine Estates, Gallo and Constellation – which own brands such as Corona and Svedka vodka – have acquired smaller wineries for their portfolios.
    “The real issue here is power,” says Simms, 90. “Opponents want to run the county in a way that is favorable to the expansion of all wineries and wine events. Which leaves the people of Napa voiceless.”
    Despite the talk of pushing back against power, some worry more regulation would actually favor the wealthy by boosting the price of the little free land that remains. Don Clark is a mid-sized grape grower and vineyard manager from Texas, who came to Napa in 1994 and was lucky to buy affordable land.
    “We may have been the last generation who could come here as a young farmer,” he says. “The barriers to entry are almost impossible now.” Startup costs have soared – Clark’s last vineyard development client spent half a million dollars on various legal, consultation and county fees, as well as archeological and environmental studies, he says.
    Clark and others point to a landmark 1968 ordinance known as the Agriculture Preserve – the first of its kind in the US – which deemed agriculture the “highest and best” use of Napa’s land. Measure C therefore undercuts a fundamental right to farm, these opponents argue.
    But proponents say the measure is born of love, not reproach, for the wine world, and is simply about responsible farming. “Something’s very wrong with the way we are thinking about our resources,” Winiarski says. “They are finite. And yet we go on with development as though we could do that indefinitely.”
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Is The Wine Spectator leaning green?

A veteran writer considers the consequences of the wineries he writes about. Good for him:

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

The truth about oak woodlands in a time of deception

Clarity bought to the watershed debate by a veteran vintner and grower
                                                                               
Title: Here’s the Science – Yes on C
On April 13, Stu Smith published a letter in the St. Helena Star opposing Measure C, which is designed to protect the Napa Valley watershed.  Before I address his letter, I would like to clarify some misinformation re my vineyards.  I have been fortunate enough to have only removed ONE tree, a sick one, to plant our vines.  Even if I had done extensive logging in the ‘80’s, as many did back then, and continuing into 2016, I would have realized that things must change.  We must start to aggressively take care of our environment. So, all you ex-loggers are welcome to join our cause.
The team behind Measure C have a very simple proposition, which is supported by much of the citizenry and by science: Stop deforestation of oak woodlands and destruction of critical riparian areas so that the water services of the watershed will be protected. Save the environment so that the population, including winegrowers, will not experience the predictable harms that follow deforestation.
Mr. Smith sounds the drumbeat of “where’s the science?”, knowing full well that there is ample science. The Watershed Task Force compiled and summarized the science associated with protecting vs. deforesting watersheds. The Dunne report (2001) systematically detailed the cumulative and permanent impact of deforestation. Mr. Smith has been an active participant in consideration of the science involved, and his claim that none exists is disingenuous. What science would he like to argue with?
The beneficial services of oak forests? The negative impact of deforestation? The benefits of setbacks from tertiary and secondary streams?  The detriment of Roundup to our waterways? Higgins(2018)? Would he like to argue that vineyards don’t use water drawn from the water table? He begins to sound like the climate change deniers who look straight at the science and declare it to be opinion. Can he show any science that shows that deforestation is good? A single case? No, I didn’t think so.
Mr. Smith also contrives an argument to make the landowners of Napa Valley an oppressed minority that is being done wrong by the “tyranny of the majority”. He argues that the initiative process by which citizens create laws directly when their representatives are unresponsive is somehow an injustice. He calls Measure C an oppression of a minority group. I confess I laughed hysterically when I got to that line. Napa wine growers as small family farmers is mostly a myth now. They do exist, but the lion-share of land holdings are owned by one per-centers and mega corporations. The idea of the super-rich being an oppressed minority is laughable.
Mr. Smith is from a previous era, when responsible vineyard developers could figure out how best to create a winegrowing business. Because the Napa brand has attracted people with less knowledge and commitment to sustainability, we need to create rules. Because we are so densely developed, we have to create rules and guidelines that consider cumulative and aggregate impact.
This one very simple measure has a very clear objective, to protect the watershed forests that assure our water supply. You can complicate it and make up ideological arguments to distract people from the simple necessity to protect the watershed, but it remains that deforestation will lead to bad effects for us all, protecting the watershed is one thing we can do right now to protect our future.

Please vote YES on C.  Randy Dunn
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Monday, April 30, 2018

Would a fourth Napa book have a happier ending?

Ask me after the June election.                                                                                       


                                       EVE'S WINE 101

PERLIS PICKS: NAPA AT LAST LIGHT

    The book Napa at Last Light by James Conaway was very hard to read. Not because it was poorly written. Far from it. Mr. Conaway is an excellent writer, having authored thirteen books as well as having been published in numerous magazines. This book, subtitled “America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity”, is the most recent installment of what is called his Napa trilogy, which started with Napa: The Story of an American Eden and continued with The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley.
     So when I say it is hard to read, it is because the third volume, unlike a certain other famous trilogy, reads like “Sauron” is on his way to winning and that is sad.
    Not one to pull punches, Conaway writes about the large corporate interests as well as the millionaire vanity vintners who threaten to take over Napa Valley, using up its twin scarce resources of land and water in the search to produce the next high scoring Cabernet. Providing much detail about the political intrigue and machinations involved, he’s not afraid to name names either. [I’ll leave those for the reader to discover.]
    Personally, I wish he would have spent more time on people like Steve Matthiasson, who emerges in the book [to continue the analogy from above] as a possible real-life “Frodo Baggins”, or perhaps more aptly “Samwise Gamgee”. There are a few other heroes presented as well, probably most notably Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards.
    I’m not naïve enough to suggest that development is all bad and that money is the root of all evil. Personally, Napa is not our usual stomping ground, but in the wine regions that Karen and I frequent we’ve seen plenty of inroads from wealthy people who have caught the wine bug, as well as from corporate interests. We tend to favor the smaller wineries, some of which hang on by a shoestring. Yet, I’m not ashamed that some of our favorites are also from people who made their fortune in other walks of life and have the financial wherewithal to invest significantly in their winemaking operations.
     I also believe that for smaller wineries to be successful, Direct-To-Consumer sales are critical, versus giving away profits in multi-tier distribution systems. But, DTC usually requires visitors and visitor facilities use land. And the addition of event centers enables wineries to attract more visitors and generate more revenue. Commerce, ultimately, is the end goal in order to keep the winery operations going.
    But there is no denying the issues that Conaway discusses. Land and water are finite. Climate change is real. And there are certain political forces at various levels of government that are seeking to reduce environmental protections.
    Some people say that Mr. Conaway has gone too far. They say he only presents one side of the issues and doesn’t tell the whole story. Personally, I’m not qualified to judge. I do know that voices like James Conaway’s are important to keep the conversation going. And while this is referred to as the final volume of the Napa trilogy, I’m hoping for at least one more installment – with some good news.
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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Can a million dollars defeat common sense?

From the mouths of the ancients...
                                                                                   
                                                                                  
                           Napa Valley Vintners 

BULLETIN

Subject: "No on C" Campaign Support
Date: April 20, 2018
Early this year, the NVV Board of Directors voted unanimously to oppose the Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018.  Now known as Measure C, this initiative will be decided upon by county voters in June.  Measure C further regulates our oak woodlands and expands river and stream setbacks within the Ag Watershed-zoned areas. 
Our history with this initiative is complicated, to say the least.  Over the course of the past year, the NVV Board engaged with Measure C sponsors to attempt to negotiate an outcome that would protect the environment while further supporting and promoting agriculture in the Napa Valley.  Unfortunately, this process did not result in an effective measure that fully achieved the stated goals. 
When the initiative was reviewed by NVV members and the industry organizations in the valley, there was strong opposition.  We held a town hall-style meeting in January to allow legal counsel for both the proponents and opponents to make their case, followed by member input there, and at a subsequent Community and Industry Issues Committee meeting.  Furthermore, NVV board members received numerous direct communications from members.  Most of the members that shared their viewpoints expressed opposition to the initiative.
The legal uncertainties that were raised, coupled with the vocal opposition within the membership and across the valley, led the NVV Board of Directors to vote unanimously to oppose Measure C.  Those concerns were subsequently validated by the County’s independent legal analysis of the initiative.
The Napa Valley Vintners has a long and proud history of continually working to protect our valley.  Our opposition is equally not a nod to support unbridled development within the valley.  As we have for nearly 75 years, the NVV continues its work to protect our local environment while supporting and enhancing sustainable grape growing and winemaking for generations to come.
We are acutely aware that a number of our members strongly support Measure C.  I believe profoundly that we all share the same values and care deeply for our environment.  However, the NVV Board believes that Measure C is not the proper vehicle to advance our common interests in protecting our valley. 
Consistent with that position, the NVV Board has voted to join other industry groups and support opposition activities for Measure C.  In a campaign that’s estimated to cost nearly one million dollars, the NVV will provide $200,000 in support.  Although we know there are members who do not support this action, the NVV Board is convinced that this support reflects membership opposition and is in line with our position on the initiative.  Although individual members and wineries may certainly continue to contribute to the campaign, no further financial contributions will be forthcoming from the NVV.
Sincerely,
David Pearson, Chair
NVV Board of Director
      
       Note: The bulletin I've published above does not say what was the percentage of members in favor and those opposed. Apparently members weren't polled and only those calling in were counted. Since backing restraint in the watershed is now considered unacceptable by the NVVA's conservative board - some of whom have questionable environmental histories of their own - it's not surprising that some other vintners may have been reluctant to voice their approval of Measure C.
     Take a look at the members of the NVVA board and draw your own conclusions: David Pearson, chief executive officer of Opus One; vice-chair Robin Baggett, owner and managing partner of Alpha Omega; Delia Viader, owner of Viader Vineyards & Winery, secretary/treasurer; Jack Bittner, managing partner, Ovid Napa Valley; David R. Duncan, president and chief executive officer, Silver Oak & Twomey; Andy Erickson, vintner, Favia Erickson Winegrowers; Darioush Khaledi, proprietor, Darioush; Paul Leary, president, Blackbird Vineyards; Peter McCrea, proprietor, Stony Hill Vineyard; Pat Stotesbery, proprietor, Ladera Vineyards; and Emma Swain, chief executive officer, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery.
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Monday, April 23, 2018

Valley of the Oligarchs?

From CounterPunch:

Napa County, California: the Clash of Oligarchy & Democracy

 


Photo by Jim G
“I’m afraid that Napa is becoming the Valley of the Oligarchs. If it can happen here, where people are reasonably intelligent it can happen anywhere.”
– St. Helena city councilman Geoff Ellsworth
Where does one go to glimpse the future? There have always been science fiction novels such as H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange World, as well as more recent films such as The Planet of the Apes. But what if you want to go to a real place on the planet to get a sense of where humanity is headed?
The preeminent California writer, Joan Didion, told me that for years when she wanted to see the future, she looked at Miami and New Orleans. She added that more recently she didn’t know where to focus her eyes and her critical intelligence, though she added, “To be a Californian means to be full of contradictions. I think it’s more contradictory than any other place in the country.”
The author, James Conaway, doesn’t argue that Napa County has more contradictions than any other place in California or the U.S. But he has written that Napa is the location where one can see what lies ahead for the nation. From his perspective, it’s in the very eye of the cultural and political storm that has been spreading across the U.S.
He’s written three non-fiction books about Napa. All of them describe the loss of an Eden and the corrupting power of money and privilege.
Initially, I was dubious of Conaway’s perspective. It’s true that after Disneyland, Napa is a major tourist destination and attraction, and yet it’s a small county. The population  today is about 150,000. It has 789-square miles.
But Napa is world-famous for wine and Napa wines go almost everywhere in the world.
The more I thought about Conaway’s idea, the less skeptical I became.
Recently, I went to Napa and looked at the place through his eyes. I had been there before, but merely as a tourist who ate in restaurants and drank wine in places like Tra Vigne and Bouchon, famous in the foodie world.
In some ways, my most recent trip to Napa felt like going back in time to the feudal past. After all, Napa has vineyard aristocrats in their mansions, and servants and serfs who work directly in the wine industry, or for it in one capacity or another.
From Conaway’s perspective, tourists are a big part of the Napa predicament. Indeed, hordes come by car and overrun the landscape. I saw them on my most recent foray into the dark heart of Napa, which is about thirty minutes away from where I live in Sonoma County, California.
Sonoma is much bigger geographically speaking than Napa, less developed commercially and without the glitz associated with its sister county, though its western edge on the Pacific Ocean gives it a distinctive flavor. Napa is landlocked. Only a tiny portion borders on San Pablo Bay at its southern-most tip.
I was the guest of two longtime Napa residents who don’t like the way the county has evolved— or devolved—over the past half-century. In their company I felt like a pilgrim in a lost Eden.
Geoff Ellsworth was raised in Napa by parents who for decades operated a business that sold equipment to the wine industry.
“My mother and father were living in Berkeley before I was born,” he told me. “They didn’t think it was a good place to raise children so they moved to Napa.”
Ellsworth grew up there just in time to witness a revolution that transformed the place from a sleepy backwater to a thriving economic powerhouse that attracted the super rich, as well as Latinos who have worked the land.
An accomplished artist and a councilman in St. Helena, one of the ritziest towns in the county, Ellsworth said he never thought he would see the kind of environmental destruction that he has seen in Napa for years and still sees everyday.
Indeed, if one wanted to view the impact of greed unleashed, the power of money and the corruption of the democratic process, Napa is as good a place as any to start.
“It’s beginning to look like clean water for everyone is revolutionary,” Ellsworth told me.
To see Napa raw and naked one has to get away from Main Street and downtown and venture in the hills and mountains where right now woods and trees are being harvested with little if any concern for wild life and endangered species. Then, the land is cleared with heavy machinery to make way for more vineyards.
With Ellsworth was Kellie Anderson who has lived in Napa County for 27 years and who worked for decades in the wine industry and for the county agricultural commissioner.
Feisty and fearless, she knows from her own professional experience, what the rules are, and how they’re routinely broken by the big corporations that have snapped up land, blasted rock with dynamite, privatized watersheds and polluted streams and creeks with harmful herbicides and chemicals.
“It’s total insanity what’s happening here,” Anderson told me. “No one enforces the laws and there’s a huge amount of intimidation and fear.”
Ellsworth added, “Word has gotten out that Napa is a place where no one pays attention to rules and so no one in the wine industry is afraid of breaking rules and lying, too. The newspapers have been co-opted.”
By car, we climbed into the mountains and stopped every half-mile so that Anderson could point to a vineyard or a plot of land where the rules had been broken. In some place, it was shocking. Creeks and streams had been buried under piles of earth and chemicals were stored in unsafe, hazardous locations.
Long-time residents have been forced from their homes to make way for more vineyards. Almost all of them are surrounded by high fences and stonewalls.
“A member of the citizens’ auxiliary police,” as she calls herself, Anderson raises a hue and cry at public meetings. She also lights a fire under Ellsworth in his role as councilman.
“I’m afraid that Napa is becoming the Valley of the Oligarchs,” Ellsworth told me. “If it can happen here where people are reasonably intelligent it can happen anywhere.”
The problems, Anderson went on to explain, are manifold.
“The vineyard owners and wine makers dispense funds to most of the civic groups and organizations and anytime anyone criticizes them they point to their philanthropic efforts,” she said. “Citizens are told that if the vineyards and the wineries are forced to adhere to environmental regulations people will lose their jobs, won’t be able to pay the rent or put food on the table and feed their children.”
Anderson added, “the women who work in PR for the wineries are some of the worst.”
Ellsworth listened carefully, and then told me that, “On the surface, the grape and wine industry seems much cleaner than the coal industry, but it, too, is very dirty and very responsible for deforestation and pollution of the environment.”
But all is not lost. Ellsworth, Anderson and hundreds of citizens have banded together to make what might be called a last stand against the oligarchs. Indeed, in the spirit of California democracy, they have drafted an initiative that’s on the ballot in Napa June 5.
“The Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018”—known as “C” —states that when enacted it will “protect the water quality of Napa County’s streams, watersheds, wetlands and forests and safeguard the public health, safety and welfare of the County’s residents.”
The anti-“C” forces managed to write false and misleading statements about “C” and then include them in the voter information pamphlet. But a lawyer and a vineyard owner with an unusual name, Yeoryios C. Apallas, filed a lawsuit, also in the spirit of California democracy.
The Napa County Superior Court ordered the removal of the false statements from the voter pamphlet.
Still, the ruling didn’t stop the proliferation of the “No” on “C” signs that insist that if successful the initiative will lead to higher taxes, the end of individual freedom and a loss of personal income.
“The same issues were around in the 1990s,” Anderson told me. “But back then almost no one paid attention. Now, we’re way beyond the tipping point and people are beginning to wake up and see what’s happening right here and right now.”
Ellsworth added, “The ‘No’ on ‘C’ forces have argued that if it’s successful the initiative will end comfortable life styles. Many people are not buying that view anymore.”
Indeed, it looks as though democracy will triumph on June 5.
“It’s a first step,” Ellsworth said. “The ‘Yes’ on ‘C’ campaign has educated the public and raised awareness about our most valuable resource: water.”
Author James Conaway doesn’t claim credit for the awakening of the citizenry, but his three Napa books, including the most recent, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age if Calamity (Simon & Schuster), have played a key role and shown that in the age of the tweet, the book as a medium for information still has a vital role to play in civic life.
Joan Didion, who left her native California and moved to New York many years ago, would look at Napa today and see immense contradictions, not only between oligarchy and democracy, but also between the beauty of the land itself and the rapacity of an industry driven by greed.
Late on a hot, sunny Friday afternoon, I said goodbye to Ellsworth and Anderson, promised to return and went home a sober man. Indeed, we had not had a sip of wine in a place made world famous by wine.