Saturday, July 30, 2016

Chainsaw wine?

A demonstration outside of the Hall Winery in St. Helena protesting the Walt Ranch vineyard development in the hills of east Napa. The winery is planning to cut and clear 24,000 trees from a sensitive watershed, which critics and water quality experts agree will create serious water quality and availability issues for hundreds living in the county and the city of Napa.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Napa judge's decision appealed to a higher court

The following's from proponents of the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative opposed by every influential group in Napa Valley except - apparently - the people:
    The need for increased environmental protections for our hillside forests, which directly affect our County’s water supply, is based on scientific reality. If our citizens and ag community want to ensure long-term sustainability of water, we absolutely must control the natural eco-systems in our watersheds. This is why we promoted the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative.
    It is essential that vineyard plantings are set back from our smaller Class 3 streams in Napa County.The science related to buffer zones along larger creeks and streams mandates much wider setbacks to eliminate sediment, nutrients and pathogens from entering our water sources. At the same time, it is mandatory that we maintain 90% of our oak woodlands to retain water in the soil and to re-charge our aquifers. With such  measures in place, the habitat that live in the forest, can remain. Once our water supply is diminished, it’s too late. We’re smarter than that.
    With these issues in mind, we have chosen to authorize our attorneys to file a writ petition with the District Court of Appeal in San Francisco, seeking an order reversing the lower court and directing the Registrar of Voter to certify the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative.  The law firm of Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, who crafted the Initiative, will file the Appeal Writ Petition this week.  This same law firm authored Measure J and successfully defended that initiative through the California Supreme Court.  We believe that we have a strong case here, and the Court of Appeals will recognize that upholding the lower Courts decision would set a very bad precedent for initiative law at the State level. 
    The intent of the Initiative process is to allow our citizens to take direct legislative  action when the local government is failing to protect their rights. The proponents of the Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative received validation from over 6,300 County residents, and their rights should trump a supposed “minor technical error.”

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Another way to skin a cat

          Napa initiative disqualified on a technicality 
     But recovery's possible and according to some morally obligatory (see previous three posts). The judge "cited a previous court decision that says “local elections officials may refuse to certify a proposed measure” in such cases." The registrar of voters “'properly refused' to certify the oak woodlands initiative."
     However, "local attorney and farmer Yeoryios Apallas seized on the words 'may refuse.' He believes that the county should, if it has a choice, place the oak measure on the ballot so voters can decide its fate. The right to vote should trump the need for mathematical exactitude, he said."
     Mike Hackett, one of those pushing the initiative, said "there's more than one way to skin a cat," which means there's more to come.
     Read the full story at:

Friday, July 22, 2016

Napa's initiative denied a vote again, lawyers "pissed"

                                      This just in                               

    A judge in Napa's Superior Court denied the appeal of suporters of the Water, Forest and Oak Protection Initiative to get the issue on the local ballot for November. Lawyers for the plaintiffs - those trying to limit clear-cutting and development on fragile hillsides - are reportedly "pissed" and working though the weekend to appeal to a higher court and reinstate the initiative before Aug. 12. (See the two previous posts.)
   Stay tuned.
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The environment finally gets some space in The Wine Spectator

(The piece below is interesting for two reasons. First, it represents something of a watershed in that the glossy wine press rarely questions the motives and actions of Napa's wine industry, and the piece omits a crucial part of the untold story, i.e. that the county first approved the ballet measure, before jerking it back again four days later. Political pressure had obviously been applied , though the county denies this.)

A Battle Over Vines and Trees in Napa Valley?

A local court hears arguments over a ballot proposal that could restrict vineyard planting

Photo by: S. Greg Panosian/iStock
Napa Valley's hillsides are dotted with old oak trees and pines.

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: July 20, 2016
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Napa County residents packed a local court on July 15 for a rather arcane hearing on rules for qualifying voter initiatives for election ballots. Extra chairs were brought into the courtroom to accommodate the spectators, with dozens more people standing outside in the hallway, several wearing buttons that read “Save the Watershed.”
They were there to support the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2016, a proposal to tighten county rules on land development and tree removal near local watersheds. Napa County Superior Court Judge Diane Price had expedited the hearing to see if the measure could appear on the election-day ballot this November. For 10 weeks earlier this year, volunteers supporting the initiative gathered signatures in front of grocery stores and libraries, but county officials ruled that the proposal was not presented properly.
The measure is opposed by local vintner groups. And it comes at a time when many Napa winegrowers worry that their neighbors are growing increasingly hostile toward vineyard plantings. If Judge Price allows it on the ballot, it could bring a simmering debate over vines to a boil.

How should land be protected?

Hillside vineyard development in Napa has grown increasingly controversial. “The valley floor is planted out,” Michael Hackett, a local and co-author of the initiative, told Wine Spectator. “New plantings have to go to the hillsides and mountains, and the only thing in the way are the trees.” 
Local officials, vintners and some environmentalists have long seen farming as the best use for Napa’s land, dating back to the 1968 establishment of the Napa Agricultural Preserve, which protects 40,000 acres of land, preserving it for agriculture or open land. But now some argue that removing oak trees and planting hillside vineyards is threatening precious water sources. California's long drought has given those arguments more weight with the public.
This is not the first time vineyard planting in Napa has met opposition. One of opponents' main objections to the new proposal is that the Valley already has much stricter (and costlier) planting rules than most of California.
In 1991, after erosion on Howell Mountain likely caused by vineyard development polluted a reservoir that is St. Helena's main water supply, Napa County created a strict hillside ordinance, which requires growers to get approval for vineyards planted on slopes of 5 degrees or more. A Sierra Club lawsuit a decade later led to mandates that most Napa vineyard projects must meet the tough standards of the California Environmental Quality Act, which is seldom applied to agricultural developments.
Current rules for developing land in sensitive watershed areas require maintaining a tree canopy of at least 60 percent of what exists and replacing any removed oaks with twice as many oaks elsewhere.
The proposed initiative requires land owners wanting to clear oak trees on most properties of 5 acres or larger to submit plans for county approval. The owners would have to keep at least 90 percent of the oak canopy on a parcel and replace oaks at a 3:1 ratio. Buffer zones around streams would also be increased. 
In April, Napa Valley Vintners, Winegrowers of Napa County, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Napa County Farm Bureau all announced their opposition to the proposal in a joint letter. “There is no question that Napa County has already taken a forward-looking approach to environmental protection,” the letter said. The groups argue that the proposed law would complicate a system that already works.
"We are deeply disappointed that this quasi-environmental initiative was proposed to get on the ballot. It's loaded with misinformation and hidden costs," said Jennifer Putnam, executive director and CEO of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Putnam added that the organization is highly supportive of other programs, such as the existing Fish Friendly Farming certification program for agricultural properties, which she says is more comprehensive. (Some vintners do support the measure, however.)

A technicality or a valid complaint?

The proposal’s backers needed almost 3,800 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. They collected 6,300 by June. But Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur rejected the measure and the signatures. He said the petition didn’t meet California’s “full text” requirement for ballot initiatives because it proposed mandating rules from another measure, Napa’s Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan of 2010, without listing the full text of those rules. 
Instead of starting again from scratch—the deadline for making the ballot is Aug. 12—the backers are suing the county. During the hearing, Catherine Engberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the court, “The county got it wrong. The full text rule is a straightforward one.” She argued that it was unrealistic to list every single law or appendix every document that might be affected in an initiative. “The registrar had to, pardon the pun, but had to go out on a limb to reject [the measure],” said Engberg.
Arthur Coon, attorney for the county, defended the decision to reject the measure, suggesting that it “wasn’t an accident” that the plan’s text wasn’t included, pointing out the substantive provisions outlined in the text, including dozens of guidelines for everything from details about installing high-visibility fences and weed-control procedures to acorn collection and storage. 
Judge Price concluded the hearing by saying she plans to hand down a decision within a week. 
The same day the lawyers were arguing in Napa, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance that would limit the removal of native oaks and woodlands in their county's unincorporated areas. The measure was trigged by last month's controversy over a vineyard-development project by Justin Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles that removed hundreds of oaks.
As Napa vintners point out, unlike Paso Robles, they already have strict laws in place, and that without the wine industry, their valley would not be the farmland it is today. But whether this proposal is approved or not, questions over Napa's hillsides are not going away soon.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Oaks fall while more carbon dioxide rises. Go figure.

                  In Napa the fight's beyond nasty.                                                                                          
(The Napa County Water and Forest Protection Initiative was held up by the county, and proponents appealed to a Superior Court judge who is considering whether or not the initiative will proceed. The following's from a letter sent to me by proponents of a voter initiative to force the county to comply with the law.)
    NAPA, Calif. - Recent widespread news reports concern the controversy over the bulldozing of hundreds of acres of oak trees to plant vineyards. The devastation is taking place fastest in Napa County, and on a far greater scale. Says Mike Hackett, spokesman for the Initiative, “We are right now confronting project after project calling for deforestation in our watersheds, and residents are alarmed, but our County officials have yet to act.”
    Consequently he and other Napa County citizens have drawn up and collected over 6,300 signatures on a voter initiative for the Nov. 8 ballot: the Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative of 2016.  Its primary aim is to safeguard the County’s besieged watersheds, water sources and forests.
    “We need this ballot measure to restore balance between the wine tourism industry and the rights of local residents and communities, and to provide long-term protections for our oak woodlands and our water future,” Hackett said.
    “This should concern residents of the greater San Francisco Bay Area as well. The Napa River is the second-largest freshwater source emptying into the bay—a water body shared by millions. The Napa River has been impaired for decades and we need protections for the water sources that drain into it.”
    According to Hackett, Napa County Planning Department records show nearly 3 million gallons of additional wine will be needed to satisfy the myriad of winery expansions on file with the County. That would require an estimated 6,000 additional acres of new vineyards, sacrificing much of the county’s water supply and natural beauty—its' forested hillsides and watersheds—to meet the demand. 
    “Right now we have at least 29 erosion control/vineyard conversion applications on file awaiting approval, “says Jim Wilson, vice-president of Defenders of East Napa Watersheds. “ We don’t have any current protections for our oak woodlands, so we need the Initiative for a healthy eco-system.” 
    "California has lost more than a million acres of oak-related lands in recent decades. These oak woodlands are responsible for water purification and replenishment and are essential to the environment and watershed health. Napa has the highest concentration of oak woodlands of any County in California, and this iconic ecosystem is disappearing at an alarming rate,” Wilson added,  "This is significant because two thirds of Napa County’s drinking water  comes from its oak-dotted watersheds."  
    Joy Eldredge, Napa City Water General Manager, has written: “The County should prevent the shifting of vineyard development impacts onto the City and its' public drinking water customers.” The water manager goes on to state that "the City has seen a 400% increase in the level of effort required to treat Hennessey Reservoir for algae problems.”  
    This water quality degradation is due to vineyard development and run-off above the reservoir’s watershed.  At times, 70% of Napa city’s water supply comes from Hennessey Reservoir.
    Napa’s other reservoir faces a large vineyard development above it called Walt Ranch, associated with Hall Winery, which would cut and clear 24,000 trees, and the City of Napa water manager believes it could cost the taxpayers up to $20 million to clean up the reservoir’s water if this project is approved.
    “The juggernaut of the wine industry’s encroachment into hillside forests threatens to bring serious impacts for humans, animals and the environment and after five years of drought, it’s only going to get worse,” says Wilson. 
    Napa Valley, one of the world’s most prestigious viticulture regions, is noted for its ideal terroir and climate for grape growing.  “Over 40 years ago,” Hackett said,” visionary Napa County activists such as Volker Eisele [see] pushed through farsighted policies to protect the valley floor for what was considered it's highest and best use - agriculture, including wine grape production.” 
    Now, however, the accelerating demand from international corporations and wealthy individuals to convert thousands more forested acres to vineyards is pushing development onto sensitive hillsides and natural areas, threatening Napa County’s microclimates and future water security.
    The Napa County Water, Forest and Oak Woodlands Protection Initiative recently garnered over 6,300 petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot. It is currently held up by the County over an alleged “minor technical issue", Hackett explained.  
    A lawsuit was filed by Initiative proponents and a favorable ruling is hoped for next week. In the case of an unfavorable ruling the matter will be appealed to a higher court.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

And you thought vineyards were benign

            Napa's Environmental Struggle Intensifies
                                       (from the Napa Register)                                              

                                         By  Stephen J. Donoviel                            
Reading the article County Approves Walt Ranch (June 14) immediately brought to mind two comments: one, the response by one of the so-called "Original Ten" vineyard and winery owners during the late 1960s to a question about planting vineyards on the surrounding mountains, to which he replied: "The valley's for farming, the hills are for the deer." The second was a comment I often heard my mother say, "My, oh my, what money can buy!"
David Morrison, director of Planning, Building and Environment, stated in the article that all of the numerous concerns addressed in the EIR analyses for the above project could be mitigated and would not reach the level of "Significant." I disagree.
These concerns involve the entire ecosystem, including soil erosion, draw-down of tens of millions of gallons of water and damage to the water supply affecting local residences as well as necessitating costly improvements to the city of Napa water system; traffic issues, including road damage and increased pressure on recreational and residential mobility; threats to wildlife; geological threats to the adjacent community of Circles Oaks and many other families living in the surrounding area; various forms of noise pollution generated by heavy equipment, increased numbers of vehicles of all types, demolition explosions, etc.; and the potential risks to the health of these citizens (as well as the construction workers needed for the project) by possible exposure to carcinogenic dust being blasted into the atmosphere.
These degradations would result from the domino effects stemming from the extensive alterations to the landscape, and to conclude that all these can be satisfactorily mitigated does not, in my opinion, meet the smell or common sense test -- notwithstanding the numerous analyses and consultants that have been employed.
Central to many of the issues is the cutting of old-growth forest and there is no possible mitigation for time lost, i.e., the many decades to regrow the estimated 24,000 trees and vegetation to be destroyed and the resultant effects on the ecosystem. If we think of the trees as healers of the environment, e.g., removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, stabilizing soil and stream beds, providing cover for fauna, etc., the work provided by 24,000 trees cannot be compensated by the remaining forest regardless of their numbers or ratios.
Planting saplings, while a good idea, will take years and years to equal the healing capacity of what was destroyed. I think it paradoxical that approximately two weeks after indicating that the removal of 24,000 trees did not have a significant environmental impact, Mr. Morrison in a Napa Register article on July 4, concerning Napa's responsibilities to deal with the counties' carbon load, noted that one aspect of the plan could include planting 2,500 trees annually.

Anyone who has driven behind earth/rock-moving trucks (which have relatively tight covers over the load) knows that considerable dust escapes. Four years of construction noise may not seem "significant" when gauged from sound measurement techniques, however the effect undoubtedly would be deemed otherwise by local residents. Unlike the project developers and their staff and those public officials making determinations about the risks of this project, the citizens living nearby will face an estimated four years of daily direct exposure to the noise and air pollution from explosions needed to destroy mountains, cutting trees, constant rumbling of heavy construction equipment, workers vehicles, etc,.
I am puzzled why the owners who, when they opened the Hall Winery in St. Helena, touted it as a "green" enterprise, are now promoting a project that is the antithesis to that concept with the destruction of every conceivable aspect of the environment and all for no apparent good reason -- certainly not to put food on their table, clothes on their backs or grow grapes in an environmentally sound fashion. Looking at the plot maps, this looks more like a plan for multiple ranchettes than a farming operation.
I urge the supervisors to reject the totality of this project and, instead, encourage the owners to deed this bit of earth to future generations, which, as others have pointed out, would prove to be a much greater legacy, a la Warren Buffett, the Zuckerbergs, the Gates, and so on.
If this and other such projects that have negative impacts on the many to financially benefit a few get approved, it seems there are very few options left for us, one of which would be to seek redress through the courts. Obviously such an action would require the resources and clout that an organization such as the Sierra Club has. However they would need our support and I urge everyone who is not currently a member to join the Sierra Club since this project would have lasting negative consequences, in varying degrees, on all of us.
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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Waiting for Fire, 4

                Turning Out the Light on the National Guard
    Randy pulls open the doors to the cave. The dim space is punctuated by winking lamps tunneling toward the heart of Howell Mountain, the corridor lined by French oak barrels like opposing sentinels forming a blond, symmetrical honor guard. He makes his way toward the farthest barrel, collecting a hose here, a hose there. Draped with heavy rubber coils, he ascends to the buildings above and attaches nozzles that can be directed toward embers or creeping ground fire during that short interval when a fire is possibly controllable.
    More water will be needed for an inferno, however—more than is readily imaginable. Thirty feet from where that mountain lion once jumped through the window stands a faded red International fire engine built in 1946 by Van Pelt of Oakdale, California. It’s an elegant conglomeration of red domed lights, old cloth hoses folded and stacked like 100-foot pythons, rubber hoses on hand-rolled wheels, spiderweb-covered railings, and various other accoutrements out of a Buster Keaton film. Most important, though, the antique fire engine has an 800-gallon water tank, which Randy now fills, using a big plastic pipe from the well’s concrete collecting tank.
    Randy bought the engine as is from Mike Robbins, the owner of Spring Mountain Vineyard—also known as Falcon Crest on the 1980s television show—when Robbins, despite the success of the soap opera, was in bankruptcy. The fire engine’s transmission was jammed, and Robbins agreed to take just $1,500 for this classic, even on the off chance that Randy could get it running. So Randy borrowed a crowbar, fixed the transmission in a few minutes, and hauled the fire engine up Howell Mountain on the trailer. He parked it in the field south of the house, where it has sat ever since.
When Randy presses the ignition switch, a blast of black smoke erupts before the motor turns over with authority, filling the afternoon with the resonance of old-time, unmuffled vehicles.
    We pull the flat cloth hose onto the grass, up the stairs, and across the office porch, where Antonio Galloni will have to step over it the next morning—if there is still a winery here and cabernet to taste. The hose expands as the engine pumps water through it. For one frightening moment, the nozzle—sculpted brass, a work of art in its own right—blasts a barely manageable torrent as thick as a man’s arm before the motor is shut off.
    Fortunately, the smaller rubber hoses emit streams of water less likely to break windows. Their pump runs off the main engine, and Randy gets it running, too. The rubber coils throb as they come off the roller. Pull the trigger on a fancy nozzle, and a shaft of water shoots half the height of a Doug fir. The fire engine’s water tank is full, the hoses are ready, and Randy shuts everything off.
    It’s late afternoon, and there’s no sound now from the one house visible to the north, no sign of human life in the encircling view. The breeze is undetectable in the trees, but high overhead, curdled clouds move glacially out of the south. Randy walks around the paddock and down to the pond, where a child’s plastic paddleboat sits among the weeds.
    He pushes the two-person boat into the water, then climbs in alone and tests the paddles. The boat lists to one side, so the paddles make it go round in a circle. Randy climbs out and wades in deeper. Here we could stand and possibly survive, although it would be a very long night. We would watch the firs crown out in paroxysms of flame, the Dunns’ house following. We would listen to bottles exploding in the cellar, hot embers raining all around as we felt the pressure of lung-collapsing heat. If we had fire suits and gas masks, though, we could contemplate the smoke through a thin sheet of scuffed plastic. But Randy says ruefully: “I’ve only got one gas mask.”

    At dusk we go into the kitchen, where Randy makes margaritas with a single-field tequila called Ocho, for which he trades Dunn Howell Mountain cabernet. This sort of bartering—cab for a case of tequila, cab for a flat of apricots, cab for a reworked airplane part—is as old as agriculture. Meanwhile, I cook hamburgers doused in Worcestershire sauce, and then we devour them, Randy drinking a bottle of Sierra Nevada pale ale and I a glass of a previous year’s Dunn petite syrah from one of the open bottles next to the sink.
    All outside lights are off now, and darkness settles in like a sentence. The thought of dying from smoke inhalation at two in the morning recurs, but Randy has been through this before; he’s no fool. And if I stay, I can have another glass of petite syrah.
    A friend calls from St. Helena: rumor has it the National Guard is coming to evacuate any stragglers. Randy hangs up. “If we see anybody in the road,” he says, “we’ll just turn off the kitchen light.”
    After dinner, he turns off the light anyway and goes back outside, where he puts on his headlamp. Exhausted, I head for the guest bedroom, where there’s a shower and double glass doors to stop any mountain lion. It occurs to me as I pick my way through the darkness that, in this age of calamity, falling embers are a metaphor for a host of real possibilities. We’re all waiting for fire now.
    The last time I see Randy that night, he’s back up at the well house. If the National Guard comes, they will see a bobbing circle of yellow light and hear the sound of someone wielding a McLeod, working.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Waiting for Fire, 3

       To stay or to flee, that's what it came down to. 
    Brian comes down the ladder and drops the leaf blower and harness. He has scoped out the fire from bits of news he has picked up, but even professionals like him have had trouble getting good information. “It’s probably going to jump to the next canyon,” he says. “If it does, it’ll come straight through Wildlake.” After that, it’s anyone’s guess, but the fire will move quickly through the chaparral. “The real problem’s going to be blowing embers.”
    Everyone congregates in the kitchen to eat Lori’s chicken salad sandwiches and drink cold grape juice made from a mix of Ruby Red grapes and unfermented Dunn cabernet. Brian says, “If it happens, a brush unit will come through to save what they can, and move on.”
    The brush units put out spot burns, essentially pushing the fire around a house. But not if the owner hasn’t made any preparations, or if there’s no water and it looks hopeless. Wildfire triage.
    Son Mike comes in briefly in his Aussie boots, shorts, and a sweat-stained T-shirt over his barrel chest. He’s headed home. He, Kara, and their kids live on the north end of the ridge and are vulnerable, too, though their metal-roofed house is covered in stucco. “I guess I’ll go back,” he says, almost casually, “and get up there, and see what I can see.”
    As he leaves, Brian tells Randy, “If I were you, I’d make a sign and put it up on the road. I’d spray-paint the address and the words Defensible, 10,000 gals. Pond and pool. That’s what I’d do.”

    The Dunn’s machine shop and shed are not readily comprehensible to a visitor. Surely any mechanical problem in small-scale viticulture can be solved here, but first you must know where to look: rebar, metal and plastic pipe, boards, enigmatic tools, machines for fixing other machines, a wall of dusty chainsaws, a forest of wrenches both new and grimy, a wall of fittings great and small for every imaginable coupling, and various other mysteries from the deep industrial past.
    Take the drill press that once lived in the hold of a ship-—its battered, Darth Vader visage towering over a new bit that could drill through a foot of steel. Randy bought that, too, in the ’70s, from thirdhand UC–Davis surplus. It weighed half a ton, and he brought it home on the same flatbed that had moved the D4. Ask why, and he’ll say, “It was too beautiful to pass up.”
    What the shed and shop don’t have, however, are workable spray-paint cans. Randy and I have penciled Brian’s words on a piece of plywood, but the first can he tries is clogged; the second fizzles. The only working one contains orange paint that’s too pale to be seen at a distance, so the letters must be traced again with a succession of parched black Magic Markers. The words go on, but there’s no room for “pond and pool,” so another board is propped up and assaulted with orange paint.
    Randy tosses a hand drill and some sheetrock screws into the back of a golf cart that is now a wheezing farm runabout. We take off, passing the roan gelding on his back in the paddock, rolling in dust.
    White Cottage Road is deserted. We prop the first sign against the mailboxes, and Randy screws the second one high against a runty oak. A sheriff’s cruiser speeds past, and the deputy’s head whips sideways to take in Randy’s handiwork. Tomorrow, Dunn Vineyards is to be visited by the influential wine critic Antonio Galloni, who has come from New York to taste Napa Valley’s best, including a succession of Dunn vintages. Most vintners in such an enviable position wouldn’t want to greet their estimable guest with odd, hand-painted messages in lurid colors, but the signs could give the vineyard a chance.
    Overhanging boughs of live oak, Doug fir, and madrone might deter a passing fire truck in the heat of battle, so we drive back to the shed to get the forklift, one of the white plastic bins used for hauling grapes, and a chainsaw. Soon the offending, powder-dry branches are exploding against the tarmac, where Randy shoves them aside to make way for possible saviors.

    The breeze has shifted into the west. Tiny bits of ash alight on car hoods and the lenses of my sunglasses. The odd, unsettling sense of isolation seems inevitable. But meanwhile, trenching is in order—around the main house, the garage, and the two well houses. The implement used for this, the McLeod, is a heavy hand tool with two working edges: a broad, hoelike blade and a fanged rake. Randy quickly moves earth and needles into rows, creating more firebreaks, while I sweep leaves from low roofs. Soil, systematically exposed in neat circumferential alleys, must be hosed down.
    But most of the hoses are in the big cave next to the winery, a collection of eight stainless-steel fermenters under arching metal girders, open to the sky. A great rolled sailcloth can be stretched overhead if the sun becomes intolerable, but before the harvest, the sail stays furled. The grape press is parked to one side of the crush pad, and that’s it but for heavy oak doors under a concrete archway that lead to the cave, a world unto itself.
    Fifty-odd gallons of Dunn petite syrah, a hobby pressing that comes before the main event each year and is intended for family and friends only, bubbles in a smallish metal tank on the crush pad. A square of cloth has been duct-taped over the top, to keep the wasps out. Randy interrupts his labors and says, as he stands on an empty beer keg, “Let’s make some wine.” Using a special steel implement with a canted blade, he punches down the clot of purple skins floating on top, a practical step in winemaking that is thousands of years in practice and increases a wine’s color and intensity.
    At that moment, a sheriff’s cruiser pulls up, having passed both the paddock and the house without slackening speed. A deputy gets out in a drift of dust, his belt weighted with a capable-looking automatic pistol and handcuffs. Randy gets down to talk to him, providing, when asked, his name and those of the surrounding neighbors, all of which the deputy dutifully enters into a spiral notebook. When they’re done, the deputy says, “White Cottage Road’s being evacuated,” for the second time in 14 hours.
    Randy says, “Okay.”
    “Are you leaving?”
    “That a yes, or a no?”
    There’s a pause. “No,” says Randy, and the deputy and his partner pull away, leaving a skein of new dust. They’re too busy to bother with a recalcitrant property owner, though they’re unlikely to forget him.

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Waiting for fire, 2


                  Sure, I could use another pair of hands

   On the phone, he is laconic, even on such a day, for that is Randy. Yes, the fire’s close, he tells me, likely to get closer. Sure, he could use another pair of hands. I’m at the bottom of Napa Valley, working on a book, and I put on hiking boots and drive the 20-odd miles north with a water bottle and a hat, not knowing quite what to expect.
    Cars are coming down Howell Mountain, but a few are going up, too, and I join topping out on a country road overlain with low, scudding clouds pierced by intermittent sun. The way into the Dunns’ property turns from tarmac to dirt, and at the end of the road an ancient D4 Caterpillar snorts in its labors, flaking yellow paint with rust showing through like industrial pentimento. The machine seems too simple to be effective, yet Randy has built a firebreak, trenching the edge of the sunflower field and pushing up windrows of dirt, rock, and dry pine needles blown from the big trees.
    The dozer was Army surplus, rebuilt in Okinawa after World War II and later put up for sale. Randy bought it in the town of Tulelake decades ago and drove it home on a borrowed flatbed truck, anticipating his future as a successful and, as it turned out, highly individual maker of fine wine in the modern heart of American viticulture.
    It’s 9:30 A.M., and Randy’s Levi’s and T-shirt are already filthy, a fitting match for the dilapidated straw hat sitting crookedly on his head, his white mustache a gleaming brushstroke in the brim’s shadow. Behind him is a dusty horse paddock, a stand of apple trees, and a sprawling woodshed and machine shop, its bat-winged corrugated iron roof held down with heavy stones. Mounted on the gable is a neon sign shaped like a bottle, made by a friend from vintage bits of salvaged tubing. It will announce, the next time it’s switched on, Wine!
    A pickup comes barreling in from White Cottage Road, loaded with all-terrain bicycles. The beefy driver brakes and leans out the window. It’s Mike, Randy’s stepson and Dunn Vineyards’ official winemaker now, involved in all aspects of the growing and rendering of cabernet sauvignon. Unshaven, smiling crookedly, he seems the picture of affability. But the conversation is pointed: the fire’s said to be moving in on the golf club at Aetna Springs, in nearby Pope Valley. Then Mike asks, “Did the horses get into the vineyard?”
    They did not, but if they have to be let out of the paddock, they know their way around the property and will have a good chance of surviving. “They’re hungry,” Mike adds. “I think I’ll go get them a bale.” And he’s gone again.
    The landscape has been exhausted by years of drought, and the understory of the tall oaks and conifers is bleached. In the distance, tree trunks stand out as dark slashes in brittle blond stubble, the madrone branches and pine needles as dry as dust. What has always been comforting to the eye is now vaguely threatening.
    Waiting for fire inspires an almost easeful fear, as if the threat can be banished at any moment—a lessening of the wind, a bit of rain—but it’s an edgy gamble. Whether the fire will appear suddenly and ruin their lives, possibly even claim them, or turn and consume the next ridge over, is impossible to foretell. Information about a fire’s progress is not often available—the official Cal Fire website is busy and difficult to navigate—and fire is a constantly mutating menace that only those in the middle of it can truly know.
    By 10:30, the smell of smoke is stronger. Though the barely detectable breeze is southerly, a big fire can create its own dynamic. Low clouds presumably have kept the bombers from flying in with their loads of liquid fire retardant. No one knows for sure what’s going on, only that Angwin airport is closed and people are fleeing. Randy went there earlier to move some fuel away from his plane in its hangar. Now he starts up the D4 again and mounts it, headed for a last line of windrow between the flats and the hill.
    A quarter-mile up that steep dirt road and just over the crest is the Dunns’ estate vineyard. In 30-odd years, it has earned a reputation for wines of longevity, tannic density, and beautiful bottle bouquet after a decade or more of age. Lean, intense fruit is part of that reputation, in direct contradistinction to the upfront jammy embrace and riveting alcoholic follow-through of most popular high-end Napa Valley cabernets.
    Vineyards are good at thwarting flames, providing little fuel, but this one would make a very expensive firebreak indeed. Wine from its fruit paid for the Commander and its lesser predecessors, including a secondhand 1946 drag-tail Aeronca Champ, in which Randy once courted Lori. It also paid for the Diemme grape press, the tunnels in the mountainside, and countless French oak barrels. This was long before Randy, in the final rigors of earning his PhD in entomology at UC–Davis, took an elective course in enology. He started making the stuff in a plastic barrel in the back of his used Ford Econoline van, sloshing nascent wine onto the floor as he circumnavigated Lake Berryessa between Davis and Napa Valley, where he worked for Caymus Vineyards.

    Her face drawn, Lori returns from church in St. Helena midmorning. “The fire will get to Wildlake before it gets to us,” she says, her voice breaking. “There’re mountain lions up there. And deer, bobcats, bears.” She hurries up to the house to collect more valuables.
    Their daughter, Kristina, and her daughter, Taylor, live just down the road, but they spent the night with relatives in St. Helena and will stay there tonight, too. The nagging ambiguity of the day is shared by the hundreds who have fled Lake County and flocked to the Calistoga fairgrounds, having lost their homes. Many are bunking with friends, family, or employers on the Napa Valley floor: pourers, waiters, barkeeps, forklift drivers, flower arrangers, pruners, punchers-down of the floating caps of grape skins in stainless steel fermenting tanks, and caterers who often have to cross a mountain range on two-lane roads twice a day to get to and from work.
    Randy walks up the sloping drive to the house, past his Ford 250 loaded with a ladder, wrenches, gas cans, rope, and an all-terrain vehicle that could get him back up here if he has to evacuate but finds the road to Howell Mountain blocked. Houses lost to fire often don’t have to be. A person on the scene can preserve them, but it’s risky. On Randy’s back seat is a lemon-yellow flame-resistant fire suit, a helmet, and a gas mask.
    Next on the to-do list is the cleaning of the house’s gutters, which are full of fir needles lofted there by wind the day before. The roof is metal, but an ember in a gutter can burn down even a concrete house if conditions are right—and the Dunns’ house is made of wood. He drives the forklift up to the back door as a tethering point and fetches a climbing rope for belaying.
    His son-in-law, Brian, has showed up to help, and Randy presses both of us into service: Brian is the gutter man, and I’m the belayer. Wearing aviator shades and shorts, Brian clambers up the ladder, dons the safely harness, and applies the furious leaf-blower, walking crabwise with one hand on the rope down to the far edge of the roof. He’s a professional firefighter in Sonoma County, and he will have to go back there before day’s end.
    We then clean the gutters at the winery office, a house built in the 19th century by Italians who used the cellar for winemaking. A full century later, Randy Dunn would use it, too, climbing over casks on a dirt floor, employing a tool called a wine thief to draw long vials of cabernet from bungholes into antique glasses, raising them speculatively to his nose. The house had belonged then to Charlie Wagner, owner of Caymus Vineyards, down the mountain. Warren Winiarski, winner of the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also had lived there with his wife, Barbara, and their small children, in what was then deemed a backwater unsuitable for grapes, being too far removed from the vaunted valley floor. Now this land is as sought after by potential growers as any terroir in Napa. The old viticulturists’ redwood stakes are still sometimes found in the woods.
    Randy made Charlie Wagner’s wine for him in the 1970s and ’80s. In those days, Randy looked a lot like Robert Redford—same beard, same abundant strawberry blond hair. Charlie allowed Randy to press his own grapes at Caymus and bring the juice back up to White Cottage Road, where it was transformed into the first versions of what would become the distinctive, surprisingly successful Dunn cabernet sauvignon. The praise it received then was the beginning of Dunn cabernet’s steep critical climb, and he and Lori soon bought the house.
    In Randy’s early days of ownership, the house had swaybacked floors, streaked walls, and Victorian sash windows with wavy glass. After he and Lori built their own rancher next door, this place stood empty. One night a mountain lion saw the moon’s reflection in a window and leapt through. The next morning, Randy found shattered glass, the curtains in shreds, and a single drop of blood on the floor, shed before the big cat leapt through another window and was gone.

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