Measure C sparks debate over future of Napa County vineyards

Napa County voters on June 5 will decide the fate of Measure C, which would limit vineyard development on hills and mountains. The outcome is being closely watched in Sonoma County.|

Randy Dunn was worried about the future as he walked around his vineyards Thursday morning in the Howell Mountain wine region of Napa County.

Dunn has been farming the land since 1978, when he and his wife, Lori, bought a 5-acre parcel of cabernet sauvignon vines tucked around Douglas firs more than 1,400 feet above sea level. It was a time well before “cult cab” became part of the vernacular of Napa Valley and some prized wines sold for more than $1,000 a bottle.

Things have changed in Napa, Dunn contends. There is very little room left on the valley floor, he says, pushing rich investors and wine companies into the hills to carve out the remaining land left to plant vineyards in the country's most prized wine region.

“They don't know a thing about wines. They hire a project manager. They hire a vineyard consultant,” Dunn grumbled about some of his neighbors. “There is still a lot left to preserve. There is an incredible amount of hillside planting. Most people don't see it because it's tucked away somewhere. ... Enough is enough.”

Napa County residents will determine if “enough is enough” on June 5 when they vote on Measure C. The initiative would limit vineyard development on hills and mountains to provide greater protection to watersheds and oak woodlands, the latter of which covered more than 167,000 acres, or about 33 percent of the county's overall area before last year's wildfires.

While the election essentially centers on water quality and availability, both sides concede that voters will likely be taking more into account when they enter the voting booth. The fate of Measure C will serve as a Rorschach test on how the county's 140,000 residents feel about the wine industry, from the traffic jams along Highway 29, the scarcity of affordable housing and the rising price of land, which now exceeds $400,000 per acre in some prime locations.

Opponents, represented by the major local business groups, worry that those outside issues could make it more difficult for their campaign, especially as some believe the valley has turned into an adult Disneyland for tourists.

“We should take the emotion out of this discussion,” said Measure C opponent Jeri Hansen-Gill, chief executive officer of Sustainable Napa County and a member of the Napa County Planning Commission. “Emotional responses are not a great way to legislate.”

Far-reaching results

The results will reverberate well beyond the county lines. Sonoma County activists are following the debate and stand to press their case if the measure passes.

“It would be a heads-up to our Board of Supervisors,” said Padi Selwyn, co-chairwoman of Preserve Rural Sonoma County. Her group has been disappointed that the board has turned its attention away from efforts to curb winery tourism in the aftermath of October wildfires.

The Napa measure is a result of a three-year push by community activists and environmentalists, including a 2016 campaign that never made it to the ballot. The effort took an interesting course last year when it appeared that environmentalists and leading figures in the wine industry were poised to strike a grand bargain on the issue.

Proponents Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson received a call last February from Rex Stults, government relations director for Napa Valley Vintners, the wine trade group that is arguably the most politically powerful force in Napa County. Stults inquired whether his group could find common ground with them.

The community activists worked with Stults and two other wine leaders - Michael Honig, president of Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford and Russ Weis, general manager of Silverado Vineyards in Napa - to craft a measure that could be supported by the trade group, Hackett said.

“We started out as suspicious and ended up as friends. It was a true compromise,” he said.

Honig and Stults checked with their board throughout the negotiations, Hackett said, but could not get support on the final product in September. Some members of the trade group were adamantly against the deal and Honig put out a statement on Oct. 2 that said “it has become evident that there is a lack of consensus among (Napa Valley Vintners) members and others in the community regarding this action.”

The environmentalists decided to gather signatures to place the measure on the ballot. They contend that fewer oak trees in the watershed will reduce groundwater levels, lead to more erosion and threaten wildlife.

“We need to make sure we aren't gambling with our water future,” said Hackett, who is also a member of the Save Rural Angwin nonprofit group.

Measure C would allow up to 795 acres of oak woodlands to be removed around hills and mountains of the county, starting the count from September 2017. Trees destroyed by wildfires would not count against the total. Landowners would need a special permit to cut down such trees beyond that level. New vineyards would not qualify as a reason for the permits to be granted and would face stringent conditions.

The initiative would also establish new standards for buffers near streams, prohibiting the removal of trees within 25 to 150 feet from streams, depending on the wetland area. Dead or dying trees would be provided an exception.

Vocal opposition

Opponents contend the initiative is vaguely worded and has no science to back up claims it would protect or improve the county's water quality or watershed.

They also have complained about the forum for the debate. The issue should not be decided through a ballot measure because voters “are not technically experienced to address these issues,” said Ryan Klobas, policy director for the Napa County Farm Bureau.

Instead, the Board of Supervisors would be the right place to resolve the differences, Klobas said. Proponents, however, contend the board would never do anything to risk the wrath of the wine industry.

“The county hasn't done the job to protect what we got,” Dunn complained.

Opponents of the measure say Napa County already has significant checks and balances in place to protect the environment while allowing certain projects to proceed. For example, the board in 2016 approved the controversial Walt Ranch project, a vineyard conversion between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa by Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of the Hall and Walt wine labels.

The plan, however, was ultimately reduced by 42 percent to 288 vineyard acres to reduce harm to the environment. County staff also required the Halls to abide by management goals for restoration, identification of certain replanting habitats and reporting criteria. A Napa County judge upheld the board's decision, but environmental groups on Friday filed an appeal with the 1st District Court of Appeal, prolonging a debate that has lingered more than a decade.

Larry Bettinelli, owner of Bettinelli Vineyards in St. Helena, said he knows firsthand of the obstacles for any conversion. It took him 17 years to get a 100-acre vineyard in Rutherford, having to pass safeguards for erosion control, animal habitats and oak woodlands.

“I have been through every hoop that I was requested to go through, some going through three times,” said Bettinelli. The county also prevents new vineyards on slopes greater than 30 percent, he added, making much land already off-limits.

If Measure C were to pass, it would create a “de facto moratorium” on many parcels in Napa County, said Phillip Blake, an environmental planner who has worked with Napa County clients that turned portions of their land into vineyards.

“A lot of people I have consulted with have moved on to Lake County and Solano County and other areas,” Blake said.

Opponents have a significant advantage in fundraising for the campaign, given their ability to draw money from large wine companies and affluent vintners. The No on Measure C campaign, known as the Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, received $403,007 from Jan. 1 through April 21, according to records from the Napa County Elections Division. They have raised the specter of challenging the measure in court if it is approved.

Contributors include $100,000 from the Napa Valley Vintners; $12,472 from Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena; $11,472 from Jackson Family Wines of Santa Rosa; and $9,975 from Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena.

By contrast, proponents raised $163,504 during the same period through their Yes on Measure C campaign, known as the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Committee. But they do have the support of some notable people in the wine industry, including Andy Beckstoffer, who has been called the most powerful grape grower in Napa, and Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars near Yountville and winemaker of the cabernet sauvignon that won the famous “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting in 1976.

Dunn acknowledged that some have charged him and others with hypocrisy, noting he was able to develop his land decades ago but now wants to limit the choice for others. He added that he cut down one oak tree in developing his 35 acres of vineyards. Those that want to do conversion now would do much more clear-cutting, he said.

“They only made so much beachfront. You either got it when the getting was good, or you are going to have to pay dearly to get it,” Dunn said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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