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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.”

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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