Dunne on Wine

Divisive referendum seeks to limit vineyard growth in storied Napa Valley

Vineyard manager Chris Pedemonte walks through a vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon at Round Pond Estate in the Napa Valley on Dec. 13, 2012.
Vineyard manager Chris Pedemonte walks through a vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon at Round Pond Estate in the Napa Valley on Dec. 13, 2012.

All those vines stretching in tight formation across the floor and up the hills give Napa Valley an aura of orderliness as well as prosperity.

Farming has never been as predictable or as successful, those commanding regiments suggest.

But while the prosperity is real, the orderliness isn’t all it seems. Behind the image of Napa Valley’s lush wealth have been decades of contentious infighting over its rise as the nation’s most glamorous farming enclave.

And right now, as visitors clink crystal glasses in swanky tasting rooms, the behind-the-scenes brawl is messier than ever, perhaps even jeopardizing the valley’s acclaimed sense of community.

“This is extraordinarily divisive, extraordinarily acrimonious. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Stu Smith, who came to Napa Valley in 1971, nurtured a vineyard high on Spring Mountain, and with his brother Charles created Smith-Madrone Winery.

“This” is Measure C, formally known as the Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018.

Napa County’s nearly 76,000 registered voters have been addressing the issue as they started filling out their ballots two weeks ago. Votes will be tallied June 5.

If it passes, the initiative will impose a series of environmental standards – wider buffers along streams, limits on the falling of oak trees, the replacement of removed oaks on a 3:1 ratio – aimed at safeguarding woodlands on the sloping watershed rising from the valley floor.

“The valley floor is planted out. The only place left to put in additional vineyards is the hillsides,” says Mike Hackett, a former military and commercial pilot turned environmentalist instrumental in qualifying Measure C for the ballot.

The hillsides that bracket the valley, however, are the source for two-thirds of the water that recharges reservoirs and wells that help sustain the valley’s several small towns as well as its sprawling vineyards, Hackett says. In short, the measure is needed to control development on the hills to help assure the quantity and quality of runoff, he argues.

Not without irony, arguments for and against Measure C are playing out against a backdrop of celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of Napa Valley’s designation as the country’s first agricultural preserve, a slim and long slice of prime farmland on the valley floor.

Proponents of the woodland initiative see it as just the latest in a succession of tweaks that have strengthened the valley’s agricultural safeguards over the past half century.

Opponents, however, fret just the opposite, that the proposal will end up jeopardizing the valley’s standing as treasured farmland, quite possibly resulting in exploitation of the hills for resorts, houses, wineries and the like rather than vineyards.

“If Measure C passes, for the first time in 50 years the highest and best use of the land will no longer be agriculture. For a third of the county, houses will become more important than farming,” says Smith. He bases his prediction on the county’s 2010 Oak Woodland Management Plan, which calculated that 167,000 of the county’s 505,000 acres is designated oak woodlands.

Smith is so against the initiative that he oversees one of three websites that have sprouted to debate the measure. His opposition is based in large part on scientific research that he says shows that preservation of woodlands doesn’t necessarily enhance water availability.

As a measure of how alienating the issue is, members of the valley’s wine trade are unusually split over the matter. Such prominent grape growers and winemakers as Warren Winiarski (founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars), Andy Beckstoffer (who may control more valley vineyard land than anyone), Beth Novak Milliken (Spottswoode Estate), Christian Moueix (Dominus Estate) and Randy Dunn (Dunn Vineyards) all favor Measure C.

On the other hand, the county’s most influential wine-trade group, Napa Valley Vintners, with more than 500 members, opposes Measure C, along with other farm groups and most of the mayors of the towns scattered through the valley.

Officials of Napa Valley Vintners, perhaps embarrassed by their waffling on the measure – it initially collaborated with Mike Hackett to draw up the proposal, then withdrew its support as members began to agitate against it – aren’t discussing the matter other than to issue a press release in which it worries that approval of Measure C will lead to a protracted court fight.

Indeed, a 79-page legal analysis for Napa County supervisors – four times longer than the initiative itself – concludes that passage of the measure almost surely will be challenged in court largely because its provisions are “arguably unlawfully vague or misleading.”

Opponents have generated $403,007 in campaign funds, while proponents have accumulated $163,504, according to financial disclosures filed with Napa County election authorities. Napa Valley Vintners alone contributed $100,000 against the measure. High-profile wineries opposing the initiative include Jackson Family Wines ($11,742), Castello di Amorosa ($10,000), Duckhorn ($10,000) and Opus One ($9,999).

Principal contributors in favor of Measure C include Warren Winiarski ($49,999), Beckstoffer Vineyards ($25,000), Spottswoode Estate ($10,000) and Alan Galbraith, mayor of St. Helena ($10,000).

Even if the measure is defeated, concerns about the future of the valley’s hillsides aren’t likely to go away, with the county’s supervisors apt to be lobbied to create a task force to review the adequacy of existing regulations to see if they should be updated.

Some residents also see the measure not so much as a referendum on hillsides, water and oaks as on whether Napa Valley traffic has become too congested and the cost of living too dear, for which they blame the flourishing wine trade. They see the ballot as an opportunity to send vintners and other developers a message about reining in their ambitions.

Meanwhile, grape growers and winemakers in other California wine regions, facing questions if not yet challenges about the environmental and cultural consequences of relinquishing so much land to vineyards and wineries, are watching Napa Valley to see which way the wind is blowing.

After all, Napa Valley residents, particularly members of the wine trade, long have been barometers of both environmental consciousness and community cohesiveness. In addition to developing the country’s first agricultural preserve, they’ve managed to come together on such projects as restoring Napa River, preventing construction of a freeway through the valley, and enhancing flood control to better safeguard the city of Napa.

Measure C may be generating more heat than any of those earlier issues, leaving residents to ponder whether current hard feelings can be healed and Napa Valley’s traditional togetherness salvaged.

The late Jamie Davies could bring some perspective to the matter. She and her husband Jack, of the sparkling-wine house Schramsberg Vineyards at Calistoga, were pivotal players in forging the agricultural preserve. About 20 years ago she was one of several Napa Valley residents to contribute essays about community for a book to raise money for Napa’s Queen of the Valley Hospital.

“It took two years to establish the Napa County Agricultural Preserve,” she wrote. “During that time friends were pitted against friends, old timers against old timers, families against families. There were a lot of hard feelings at the end of it all. Some people never spoke to each other again. Over time, many of those who had openly opposed the Ag Preserve came to us and said, ‘We were wrong. The Ag Preserve was the best way to save our valley.’ It was difficult to build consensus among the conservative farmers and residents, but in the end one has to make a choice: either you self-regulate or allow individuals to have their own way and destroy the culture you are trying to save.”

Napa Valley again is redefining what it wants to be, with Measure C a signpost along the way to indicate how those deliberations will continue.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.