Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Last advice for a beautiful, struggling valley


    Once upon a time a feature writer for the Washington Post was asked to take over the newspaper’s wine column, more or less in his spare time. He agreed, using one day a week to actually find out something about the beverage and to write about its world. Soon styrofoam cartons started showing up on his doorstep. He could soon have amassed enough to build a styrofoam version of a hay bale house, but he also gained an incidental awareness of a place called Napa and found that considerably more interesting than wine itself.
This led to his writing a book about what had happened in Napa, a unique American triumph of agriculture, artisanship and conservation over maximum exploitation. The book was built on close reporting about the lives of those who wrought the extraordinary feat that became “Napa Valley” and that of their descendants.
In other words, he took the subject seriously in a way wine writing doesn’t, including the human dramas and foibles. And many of those written about never forgave him. He was supposed to have labored, he realized, to praise them and their wine. Vintners wanted to be taken seriously in print and on on-line, often while behaving otherwise.
Those styrofoam packages are no longer landing on the wine writer’s front stoop. He long ago realized that the so-called “wine press,” however critical it might be of individual wines, is still an inherent part of the vast publicity machine driving wine sales and tourism. He gets no more invitations to faux “journalism” conferences at resorts, but he still lives in hope that wine journalism will someday throw off the styrofoam yoke and look a more deeply at the roots of all wine writers’ enjoyed largess.
Meanwhile, three decades later, the face of the wine industry no longer bears any resemblance to a collective portrait of recent greats - Andre Tchelistchef, Warren Winiarski, even Robert Mondavi - but rather to a figurative representative, an  overweight real estate developer with dyed yellow hair who’s a lifestyle vintner in Virginia who also happens to be the president of the United States.
Many of the descendants of those who fought to create the agricultural preserve in 1964 have lost their idealism while pursuing wealth at the expense of place. What many of these “leaders” now take seriously is the milking of a cash cow until it expires. Climate change, which should have galvanized them, has instead inspired recklessness. Their concern is no longer the natural integrity of the valley, but maintaining the corporate attitude at all costs, which is getting yours before others get theirs, even when that means tanking the resource.  
Much of the cadre that does take Napa seriously is sitting in this room, a remnant of Jeffersonian idealism working to limit developers and opportunists in the “hospitality” professions which unfortunately today includes wine. If it wasn’t for people like you room these issues wouldn’t be forcefully raised at all. But you need help if the bits of real Napa are going to be held onto, and I believe some of that help has to come from outside the county because the financial and social comfort of existing institutions here is so tightly bound up in the status quo ante.
Money and only money is the real interest of those in control today, and money is in this instance destructive. The philosopher, Edmund Burke, who referred to it as “gain,” recognized gain’s destructive power when it becomes the only value. Burke is the darling of so-called conservatives, but he acknowledged way back in 1756, in A Vindication of Natural Society, that, “The great error of our nature is not to know where to stop” and in the process “to lose all we have gained in an insatiable pursuit for more.”
That pretty much sums up the tragedy of the commons now being played out in Napa. Napa has had more, in Burke’s sense, for a long time, but unless current practices are curtailed it won’t have it much longer. Wine alone, without the physical integrity of this beautiful place, will not sustain the valley in a time of climate change. Everyone knows by now that natural explanations for global warming are baseless and that human release of greenhouse gases account for almost all of it since Edmund Burke’s time. They also know that the primary contributors are the burning of fossil fuels and the cutting down of trees.
The ramifications of all this are vast, but some real mitigation is still possible on the local level. Here are some obvious things that occur to me, admittedly just an on-looker but a concerned one with some knowledge of the place:
Keep a close eye on the privatization of public water sources by corporations and wealthy individuals. They typically want this most precious resource so they can eventually sell it back to you. 
Systematically measure carbon and other emissions from existing wineries to establish a baseline that can be used in future disputes. Citizens are going to have to do this on their own, and it can be be done inexpensively, or so I’m told, by using drones, private planes and satellites.
    Campaign for political contribution limits in  county races that equalize a playing field now heavily weighted toward corporate and developmental dominance.
Sue the county to reverse the change in the definition of agriculture effected a decade ago to include marketing and by implication food service and entertainment. The change should have been subject to the popular vote and wasn’t, a stealth move by outside corporations in Napa that recently  announced, “We’re no longer in the agriculture business. We’re in the branding business.”
Along the same line, start a fund exclusively for suing the county for failing to enforce all existing laws concerning development and wine production. These get insufficient attention and action from those paid to do just that, some of them elected.
And organize a boycott of wineries and corporations that work to elect candidates inclined to do their bidding. 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 the names of the wineries and brands that ignore the law and conduct campaigns of disinformation.
My final suggestion may be the most important, and it concerns access to information that should be public. “Democracy dies in darkness” is Jeff Bezos choice slogan for the masthead of the Washington Post, but the phrase comes from a judge in pre-Watergate days discussing wire-tapping. Your darkness here in Napa isn’t absolute, as far as published accounts of malfeasance are concerned; it’s more like persistent twilight. Since the newspapers are all owned by a corporation located not in the Bay Area but in Iowa and it indirectly a dictates what Napans know and don’t know about their issues. It reminds me of the ancient Romans sending the Britons encyclicals, after cutting down their sacred groves.
I have friends who work or have worked for the Register and they are fine journalists. But writers and editors are powerless against bosses who are closely in line with the valley’s prevalent corporate attitude. Finding sustained, meaningful discussion of issues of real importance to Napans lies mostly in the Letters to the Editor section, and there’s rarely real follow-up.
During the lead-up up to the vote on the oaks and stream set-backs initiative, the Register ran a purported list of names of opponents of the initiative without determining whether or not all those names were against it. (They weren’t.) The paper gave credence to other specious claims by the opposition that falsely determined the outcome of the vote, and finally ran an editorial admitting that everything the initiative proposed would be beneficial to the county.
But the paper withheld its endorsement because - you got it - this wasn’t “the right time” for such laws. Instead, the paper recommended more study. You will always know the enemy when he or she suggests forming a committee in lieu of actually doing something. It’s the surest route, if slightly longer, back to where you already are.
The Register’s circulation has fallen in the last couple of decades from 20,000 to about 8,000. But there’s a hunger out there for in-depth reporting on what’s happening, including investigations crying out to be done. There was a brief period when the St. Helena Star was in the hands of private investors, and it could have been a crusader for the valley’s way of life and possibly its savior but they sold out to the newspaper chain in fly-over America.
However, there’s another way in this, the new golden age of journalism under duress. The break-through is on-line, where virtual newspapers dedicated to social and environmental causes rising across America are buoyed by this hunger and America’s precious Constitutional freedom of speech. Work is required, but willing workers there are, as you have proven.
Such an “e-paper,” for want of a better word, would have to be general interest minus the boosterism and car chases, and unbiased as well as unsparing. I’ve done some asking around and getting started is easier and less expensive than you might think. So is the casting of light on activities and individuals who have operated with near impunity. Such publications are riding a wave of outrage breaking across the nation in communities deprived for too long of news and discussion by co-option of information by corporate mentality and outright falsehood.
I have it on good authority that such an on-line paper can be well-launched for as little as $50,000, though twice that is preferable. It’s a long reach for many places, but not for Napa. Needed are a few determined people, a paid local reporter or two, a freelance editor, and contributors willing to report, write, and photograph for the sheer value - and joy - of it. They could quickly make an appreciable difference, and produce revenue through advertising and the selling of shares to interested people, as has been done recently in Sonoma and the East Bay. Berkeleyside, one of the best such publications, recently raised a million dollars, and a similar success could blossom here.
Napa’s e-paper would have to be independent, generally focused, and unbiased. I believe it would make a crucial difference in a difficult and dangerous time, not just for the natural and cultural resources, but also for all citizens. It would have to be totally independent of Napa Vision 2050, of course, but the objectives would be the same: an informed public, elected officials held accountable, and a healthy environment which is the truest general interest.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Take another look at this

     Important to remember where the "defeat" came from                                                                
A reader sent the following letter to me and to the Napa Register:

Follow the Money
Can we be really clear on who is bank rolling the “No on C” campaign?
The “No on C” flier that was delivered to thousands of households through-out Napa County a few days ago was paid for by “No on Measure C, Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture – FPPC I.D. #1401241.” It is listed as a “Campaign Finance Committee” on the CA Secretary of State’s website. There are no names listed in association with the committee, but there is a phone number: (707)258-8668. This is the phone number of Michelle Benvenuto and the Wine Growers of Napa County. 
That’s not really much of a surprise.  But what is interesting is that after digging a little more, I found  the actual mission statement(https://www.guidestar.org/profile/68-0398209of the Wine Growers of Napa County,  as filed with the IRS when it received its tax exempt status in 1998: 
Please note the last part: “the protection of wineries and their ability to produce and market wine,” because that part of their mission statement is often left off of any more recent descriptions of the organization.
This is the description of the organization as listed on their IRS on Form 990 in 2014, 2015, and 2016 (all public records):
“To promote and defend grape growing and wine making as commercial enterprises in Napa County.”  
That’s pretty specific.  
There is no website for the Wine Growers of Napa County, though they belong to both the Napa and St. Helena Chambers of Commerce. However, you can read much more about this organization in James Conaway’s book, “The Far Side of Eden, New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley.”   Here is a short excerpt from page 183: 
“Consider the state of the valley, advise, bankroll, and wield a big stick, that would be the role of the new Wine Growers of Napa County--” 
If you dig a little more through public records you can find this: the president of the Wine Growers of Napa County as of December, 2016 was Chris Indelicato, who is also the president and CEO of Delicato Family Vineyards, which, according to an article that appeared in Napa Register, June 15, 2017 (“Delicato’s growing presence in the wine industry—and Napa Valley”) is the seventh largest wine company in America and the second largest wine company that has headquarters in Napa. 
Other “officers, trustees, and key employees” in the public record of Wine Growers of Napa Valley include Michelle Benvenuto, Dave Pina, Tony Leblanc, Rob Mondavi, Mike Reynolds, & Carolyn Wasem.
The most troubling thing about all of this is how much money the No on C coalition (whose phone number is shared by the Wine Growers of Napa County) is spending and how many dirty political tricks they are playing to try to convince the voters that Measure C, if passed, will do the very things most residents in Napa County are worried about most:  increasing traffic and the number of mega-mansions, tasting rooms, and event centers, especially when you consider that the original mission statement of the Wine Growers of Napa County is “to protect wineries and their ability to produce and market wine.” 
Do you really believe that the Wine Growers of Napa County will still be telling the voters that more event centers will lead to more traffic after this election?  Or do you think they’re doing their best to confuse and mislead you into voting against your best interest?
Make no mistake, the No on C effort appears to be bank-rolled by some very big money and big winery interests who have hired professional political operatives that are pulling out every dirty trick in the book, including push polls, a failed attempt to deceive the voters at the tax-payers expense, misleading billboards, and the very flawed and misleading mailers that went out last week. They are, just as James Conaway wrote, wielding a very “big stick,” in this case, money, influence, and intimidation. 
Do you really trust them to tell you how to vote?
Do you really think they have your best interests at heart? 
If you want to do a little digging on your own, ask your mayor or supervisor if they accepted any campaign contributions from the Wine Growers of Napa Valley.  
Follow the money.  
Please, don’t be fooled or confused by the dirty tricks. Vote Yes on Measure C.  It’s about protecting the watershed for the benefit of everyone that lives in Napa County.

Name withheld by request.

Monday, August 27, 2018

They care in San Francisco

From San Francisco Magazine:

How Napa’s Battle Over Blocking New Vineyards Almost Split the Valley in Two

After the narrow defeat of a contentious ballot measure to limit new vineyards, defenders of Napa’s past take stock of its future.

It’s high summer in Napa Valley, and those of us who forgot to bring a hat regret it. We’re standing on the edge of Deer Park Road, on the east side of the valley, almost directly across from the town of St. Helena and out of sight of most wine country tourists, looking up at acres of tumbled rock on 1,683-foot Howell Mountain. Our little group includes a community activist named Kellie Anderson, who belongs to Save Rural Angwin (Angwin being the town of about 3,000 located a thousand feet above us); Napa County’s somber-looking director of planning, building, and environmental services, David Morrison; and two of his staff, gripping clipboards. Also present is retired Anheuser-Busch quality assurance manager Jim Wilson, who helped get a voter initiative called Measure C on the June ballot, a turn of events that split the valley in two politically.
The tour is designed to present county officials with the real-life consequences of government land-use decisions. Anderson gestures upward at the otherwise wooded mountain, which from our vantage looks more like the spoil from an open-pit mine. “What do we do with this mountain?” she asks. The question is rhetorical, but we know what’s at stake: It’s the very fiber of what makes Napa County so special, and also so coveted.
Measure C sought to protect trees close to streams and limit oak removal on Napa’s hillsides. But as soon became clear, environmentalists’ concerns were not exactly the main source of the conflict: Rather, the measure morphed into a broad referendum on the future of wine country. Would it, as supporters hoped, represent a first step in saying “no more” to the corporate interests transforming Napa into a booze-soaked Disneyland? Or was it the work of gray-haired NIMBYs turning their backs on a $9.4-­billion-a-year industry that floats all boats? In the end, the question led to the pairing up of new and sometimes strange bedfellows, accusations of dirty dealing, and the perhaps-permanent bifurcation of the valley.
On Election Day in June, the measure fell short by 641 votes, out of 35,707 cast. The specifics put before voters may have been settled for the time being, but the larger question about the future of the region remains. “We know how an initiative is done now,” Wilson tells me of the fight. “Our backers are in it for the long game. Moral outrage in the valley is mounting.”

As I wrote
 in a trilogy of books about Napa, for over half a century the valley has attracted wannabe winemakers and tourists, at rates that have accelerated with every passing decade. One consequence is that the valley floor has simply run out of land for new plantings. In 1968, when Napa Valley’s agricultural preserve, the first of its kind in the nation, was created, the county’s vineyards amounted to just under 14,000 acres. Today, that number is 46,000. Comprising 65 wineries in 1968, the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area now includes 540. The remaining undeveloped land is mostly hillside—land once considered too unstable for planting—so new vineyards are perched atop knife-edge ridges on Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak. The latter borders the site of a decades-long dispute over a vineyard proposed by Hall Wines. It’s currently tied up in appeals by activists fighting the 209-acre plan known as Walt Ranch (about 80 percent of the land burned during last October’s fires).
More than three million visitors now flood the valley every year. Many existing wineries have taken to supplanting tasting rooms with “event centers”—a euphemism for full-blown restaurants and concert venues—in hope of luring even more tourists. For Wilson and others concerned about the strain placed on the valley by the extra traffic, the environmental damage wrought by farming runoff, and the loss of Napa’s rural sense of place, the tourism dollars simply aren’t worth the trade.
So Wilson and a retired commercial pilot named Mike Hackett, who lives in Angwin, set about crafting Measure C. Hoping to strike an agreement on the initiative, they met with members of the powerful Napa Valley Vintners, which had backed environmental measures in the past, including a ­hillside-erosion ordinance in 1991. Many vintners wanted to collaborate on Measure C. Some, among them Michael Honig, the president and CEO of Honig Vineyard & Winery, even helped to shape it. But at a meeting in September 2017, the association’s board of directors voted to withdraw from negotiations. Ultimately, the vintners opposed the measure, and other trade organizations, including the Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and Winegrowers of Napa County, followed suit. The opposition campaign spent more than $835,000 to defeat the measure.
That’s not to say that environmental activists and wine growers were perfectly divided. The Napa Valley Register hinted at that tension in its endorsement of a no vote, calling the initiative “the right idea in the wrong vehicle.” Several prominent winemakers publicly supported Measure C, including Beth Novak Milliken, CEO of and heir to the venerable St. Helena winery Spottswoode, who voted in defiance of the trade group to which she belongs. “Something had to be done,” she explains. “The valley has lost much of its agrarian character in my lifetime. We’re letting this place slip away.”
Back on our tour, the group stops at a bald spot atop Howell Mountain in the middle of what Wilson calls “primeval forest.” Save Rural Angwin and others opposed the logging here, which clear-cut two parcels totaling 21 acres to make way for vineyards. “It’s a blasting-exposed, baked ridgeline,” Anderson says. Still, she and her allies remain undaunted. Tensions have risen and may not go down soon—the county board of supervisors has begun to put together a new strategic plan that would address the impact of tourism on quality of life for residents and the concerns about hillside vineyard construction raised by proponents of Measure C. The level of trust between activists and elected officials, however, remains low. For now, Hackett won’t rule out another swing at the ballot box in two years. “If nothing substantive occurs between now and a year from now, we will be back with another initiative,” he says, “and we will not be defeated.”

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.


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.”

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:


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