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Battle over Black Mountain name change shifts to Sacramento


SACRAMENTO — Wine magnate Jess Jackson's bid to rename one of Sonoma County's highest mountains is primarily for commercial reasons, opponents of the name change said Wednesday.

Property owners on Black Mountain near Geyserville said it should not be renamed Alexander Mountain as part of what they called a "corporate branding" strategy by Jackson's company.

"It's Black Mountain historically. The name is older than any of us in the room," said Scott Wilson, whose family owns about 1,200 acres near the summit of the 3,128-foot-high peak.

Wilson's comments came at a meeting of the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names, which will make a recommendation to its federal counterpart responsible for the ultimate naming decision. A recommendation won't come until January at the earliest, when the state committee meets again.

Pete Downs, the vice president for Jackson Family Wines and the official applicant for the name change, downplayed any link between his request and the wine company's bid for approval for a special grape-growing area called "Alexander Mountain."

"This is really about Cyrus Alexander. It's not about Kendall-Jackson, Jess Jackson, or Pete Downs. It is about Cyrus Alexander," he told the five-member committee.

He said the pioneer who settled near Black Mountain in the 1840s was a historic figure and it was fitting that the mountain be named in his honor.

Downs noted there is confusion about the origin of the Black Mountain name more than a century ago, and whether it was called that for its dark appearance, or for George H. Black and L.S. Black who owned property in the area in the late 1800s.

But David Gilbreth, an attorney with Artesa Winery, which has vineyards in Alexander Valley, questioned Downs' motivations.

"This is about commerce. This is not about history," he said.

If committee members concur with that opinion, it could doom Jackson's application.

"Before I retired, it was pretty apparent to me names that had some commercial interest behind it, those names get shot down at the federal level. If they smell that, they don't make it," said Jim Trumbly, a past chairman who retired from the state's Committee on Geographic Names earlier this year after serving 29 years on the panel.

Jackson, who owns the largest wine group in Sonoma County with about 30 brands, including Kendall-Jackson, has a 5,400-acre estate on the flanks of Black Mountain with vineyards that produce ultra-premium grapes, some of which are bottled under the name Alexander Mountain.

He bought the property, the old Gauer Ranch, in the 1990s, changing the name to Alexander Mountain Estate. He also renamed the road onto his property "Alexander Mountain Road."

Jackson is still awaiting approval from federal alcohol regulators to establish an appellation known as "Alexander Mountain," which would recognize the unique climate, soil and other aspects of the grapes grown there.

Downs said in interviews last year that changing the name of the mountain would help bolster the case for the proposed viticultural area to be named Alexander Mountain.

Gilbreth told the committee that Jackson's company "is waiting for you to change history" to help get its application approved with wine regulators.

Gloria Ferguson Barrios, who traces her family roots in Alexander Valley to 1857, also argued Wednesday against the name change.

"I feel if it was necessary to change the name to Alexander Mountain, they would have done it a long time ago," she said.

Gary Wilson, a Healdsburg accountant whose family has owned land on Black Mountain for generations and who is opposed to the name change, said he originally intended to bring many people to testify at Wednesday's hearing, but was told to refrain because of the small meeting room.

Instead, he presented a petition with 350 names opposed to renaming of the mountain, which looks like a long ridge, as opposed to its northerly and slighter higher neighbor, Geyser Peak.

The committee noted that in addition to the petition, both the Healdsburg and Windsor city councils passed resolutions opposing the renaming of Black Mountain. But both the Cloverdale City Council and Cloverdale Rancheria Band of Pomos were in favor of the name change.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week chose to remain neutral on the issue.

The state Committee on Geographic Names noted that there are three other "Black" mountains in Sonoma County, but many counties in the state contain multiple "Black" mountains.

A staff report cited a federal policy that says name duplication within a county or state is undesirable, but "well established geographic names should not be changed unless there is strong public support for the change."

Members of the state committee said they have a policy of not voting on an application at the same meeting where there is public testimony on the issue.

Since they only meet twice a year, they said they will take up the matter when they meet again in January.