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Land Use, Wineries, Events and Supervisors….oh my!

Nine hours at the District Auditorium at today’s special Board of Supervisors/Planning Commission meeting. I’m not sure it was the best use of time, but I think it was instructive.

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The Author of Napa: An American Eden and The Far Side of Eden looks at the current state of affairs in Napa Valley

From Jim Conaway’s latest post at http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/

 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The fight Napa’s facing could be the big one…

                           Wine or water, and 400 visitor centers

The county board of supervisors met recently in a new venue off Corporate Drive south of the city of Napa, instead of downtown where the recent earthquake left the historic courthouse in plastic-shrouded rehab and side streets full of rubble. The hearing concerned two controversial proposed projects, both involving new wineries in the steep hills where water’s scarce and roads narrow and crowded.

Signs on sticks in mostly middle-aged hands said, Save Our Water, Save 28,616 Trees, Forests = Healthy Air and, my favorite, Water Over Wine, a succinct summation with biblical resonance. If that’s really the choice then the answer’s obvious, but as with everything else environmental these days, the question is devilishly complicated and ways to ameliorate or bypass restrictions are almost infinite.

People came to the podium one at a time to voice displeasure and genuine regret for loss of oaks, productive wells, habitat, community. The president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers says, channelling Jefferson, “Agriculture’s the highest and best use of the land. Let’s keep it that way.”

He points out that recent legislative changes have allowed event centers at wineries, that particularly pernicious element of hospitality that avoids the distribution system. The centers are part of every new business plan, which means more traffic, more arable land taken out of use, more water demands, more waste and more pollution. But many vintners who once would have praised preservation of ag land when applying for a permit now can’t live without an event center.

“We have a diminishing quality of life here,” says a speaker in a down vest. “We’ve lost our way, people are talking of leaving.” Another, a long-term activist named Chris Malan instrumental in the millennial hillside fight, says, “I’m lucky to live here, but do we want to continue to strip our land? It’s a moral question,” and gets applauded.

The biggest project under consideration is the old Walt Ranch high on the eastern side of the valley, 2,300 acres of which about 500 will be “disturbed” (cleared), with 300 in vines. One lurking fear is that houses will eventually appear there, too, vineyards sometimes being stalking horses for serial McMansions.

The Walt property belongs to Craig Hall, a former owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a developer and “vintner,” a largely symbolic term at this point. Wine has been evoked so often over the years to soften the image of sharp-elbowed commerce that no one expects vintners to actually make the stuff. Winery owning has the same function often assigned to collecting art, and indeed the Halls did commission Frank Geary to design them an artful winery on the county’s main drag, before scrapping the idea.

Hall’s wife, Kathryn, an attractive women in tasteful white knit, was ambassador to Austria during the Clinton era and is a Friend of Bill. She has driven to this meeting in a familiar blue Porsche roadster with a khaki-colored top. I ask if she will discuss the Walt project with me after the meeting, and she goes off to consult with her lawyer and her winemaker.

In the years since the winery definition fight winemakers have performed increasingly ambitious lateral arabesques, not just selling the wine they make but also serving as courtiers and confidants of owners trying to navigate the promotional and political thickets, roles for which winemakers by definition aren’t qualified. The former ambassadress comes back, and says, “We’re not going to talk about it.”

A young man in tie and seersucker suit is writing vigorously on his clipboard. His seersucker suit and a tie look utterly establishmentarian, but in fact he’s part of the perennial bloom of citizen activists necessary to this long-lived struggle and who flair, flame out, flair again. His name’s Geoff Ellsworth and he agrees to meet me later to talk about “the issues,” which inevitably boil down to one: thwarting attempts by individuals who want a larger part of the action than the community is willing to give them, a variation on the tragedy of the commons.

At High Tech Burrito the unblinkered sun etches our hot border food into the reflective tabletop. “All these projects are ruining the quality of life in the valley,” he says. “There was a woman weeping in that meeting. People like her are the ones most sympathetic to keeping the agricultural preserve. But the ag preserve has lulled us all into thinking we’re protected, when we’re not. We don’t have defenses here against raw capitalism that’s encroaching on the common welfare and adversely affecting water, air, noise, and traffic.”

He pauses to ravenously eat. “Winery owners naturally want to succeed, but the industry as a whole hasn’t stood up to these excessive demands. Like event centers. Now they’re part of every winery proposal.” There are more than 400 wineries in Napa now, and close to 700 if you include the “virtuals.”

A freelance artist, Geof grew up in the hills west of St. Helena. His father was the winemaker at legendary Mayacamas Vineyards whose inky reds showed early the power of Napa fruit. That little mountain range is one of the southernmost reaches of the temperate rainforest that starts up in Alaska and, while Jefferson was trying to imagine the trans-Mississippi west he had just bought from Napoleon, and across which he would send Lewis and Clark. Then trees up there grew so densely that a raindrop took a week to reach the earth.

Down here where we’re eating carnitos on Trancas Avenue grizzlies scooped salmon and steelhead from the Napa River nearby. Its tributaries ran year-round in a paradisiacal setting brimming with ground water and consequently with life, whereas today the streams are dry and the river so diminished the Corps of Engineers has been charged with rebuilding it.

The question that often comes to my mind these days in the valley is: “What would Jefferson, that moral proponent of the family farm, make of Napa today?” I decided to get into the question more deeply, and my lengthy answer appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the University of Virginia’s literary magazine, next month.

As Les Breeden, the blogger in my novel, Nose, used to say, “Sniff, sniff…”

Up the Valley: Lord of the Wrongs

When I am not stoking my schadenfreude by deconstructing wedding announcements in the Sunday New York Times, or sharpening my math skills by tallying factual errors in the Napa Register, I often expand my social horizons by reading Paul Franson’s NapaLife, a newsletter describing the full spectrum of happenings in the Napa Valley.

In a recent issue, NapaLife confirmed a story that had been rumored for months:

The Del Dotto Family is opening a new winery called Ca’Nani, meaning “house of the dwarves.” Franson quotes Desirée del Dotto as saying: “We do plan on having some little people working there,” and describes the project as “an Italian country-style winery with caves, being built across from Mustards in the Yountville Hills” featuring “a fairy-tale theme with various characters for each wine produced.”

The Ca’Nani Facebook Page displays a dwarf carrying an outsize bunch of grapes, and a winery design that looks like a fantasy Italian stone castle courtyard, but without the gritty realism of Castello di Amorosa. The owners explain: “We chose this theme for our new label because dwarves are jovial and light hearted, and perhaps magical.”

This project raises several obvious questions, including: Doesn’t Yountville look enough like a theme park already? Who are these jovial dwarves (the few I’ve met were decidedly cranky)? Will there be a “Dwarf Wanted” posting on WineJobs.com? And doesn’t this give delightful new meaning to the phrase “short pour”?

This story should become a Napa Valley epic fantasy novel:

Once upon a time, there was a brave planning director and disciple of Saint Helena, who ventured into the forbidden village of Yountville to observe its legendary wonders: wide pothole-free streets, clean branded awnings, and certain mythic buildings kept for the use of “visitors” who are reputed to “check in” and “stay the night.”

An enchanted place where faux-Italy and faux-France peacefully co-exist, there is supposedly no school system in Yountville; just a fairy princess who reads fables to young children before stuffing them into the oven at Bouchon Bakery. Overwhelmed by its beauty, the planner wanders into Hurley’s for a restorative lager, and accidentally leaves behind his precious Golden Drafting Compass.

This Golden Compass, essential for making planning decisions on Saint Helena’s behalf, is placed in a box behind Hurley’s bar and lost for what feels like 1,000 years. Without it, no one can assess the square footage of a hotel site, or calculate the city’s water needs, or determine the number of staff required to run a municipal department. Thus the Upper Kingdom of Saint Helena, unable to pass even the most General of Plans, cedes its dominance to the Middle Kingdom.

Fortunately, the People’s Prince, Lord Dario of Sattui, during a late-night rendezvous at Hurley’s, retrieves the Compass and conveys it to his Upper Kingdom Castello for safekeeping. There it is locked in a dungeon guarded by an irascible Croatian gargoyle answering to the nickname of “Mike.” Access to the treasure requires enthusiastically chanting the word “Cheers” 50 times to a troll at the gate.

Meanwhile, the Lords of the Middle Kingdom plot to recapture Saint Helena’s Golden Compass and usurp her town’s exhaustively-market-researched-and-branded position as “Napa Valley’s Main Street.” And so they erect a fantasy kingdom of their own deep in the Yountville hills, and cunningly lie in wait for the day when they might deploy an army of dwarves to seize the talismanic Compass.

The epic battle unfolds as the diminutive warriors commandeer the Wine Train, venture Upvalley, and storm the Castello. But wily Prince Dario, who maintains a second, less-lofty castle on the side, summons its army to advance from the south, and routs the would-be usurpers. The small-stature survivors scatter to hide in the Petrified Forest, followed by a long and perilous journey to the Safari West wildlife preserve. There they will mount flying unicorns and journey back to the Middle Kingdom. (How do you know there aren’t unicorns at Safari West? You haven’t been there.)

A peace conference is convened by the Lower Kingdom’s Tax Assessor and Registrar of Voters, but he betrays both parties and steals the Golden Compass for himself. Lacking any compass of his own, he has been unable to certify election results for what feels like 1,000 years.

(Lest you feel that my fear of impending invasion rings false, remember that the Town of Yountville recently announced plans to annex Domaine Chandon, which is much like the time Henry V decided to annex France, except that instead of resulting in the acquisition of another country, it will result in the acquisition of another Michelin star.)

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Kingdom, will the Lords of Kellerville and Chiarelloland, and Sir Richard of Reddington, sit idly by, or will their publicists force them into the fray? Will Ca’Nani’s promised fairy-tale characters include dwarves named Swirly, Sippy and Spitty? And will the ultimate victors be the lawyers of would-be winery workers over 4 feet 10 inches in height? You’ll have to read another chapter in the “Lord of the Wrongs” cycle to find out.

Laura Rafaty is a three-time national award-winning columnist, a Tony-nominated theatrical producer, Producing Director at Lincoln Theater, and attorney at NapaValleyImmigrationLaw. Read more at laurarafaty.com.

Up the Valley: Rainbow Valley

Recently-released data from the 2010 US Census reports that the number of same-sex households in Napa County totaled a scant 0.85%, making it the second lowest in the Bay Area, behind only Santa Clara County.

Knowing friends, neighbors and customers in the LGBT community, these numbers are clearly wrong.   Apparently the census only counts those as LGBT who live together in a shared household. LGBT Americans living alone, or with a friend, or with mother, are not added to the same-sex tally by clueless census takers, even if they answer the door wearing a rainbow-colored thong or a KD Lang t-shirt or are Chaz Bono. This latest singling out of single people only fuels my fears of a national conspiracy to eliminate the chronically unmarried, or at least to isolate us in camps outside Salt Lake while Mitt Romney looks for partners for each of us so we can finally be part of a family, but don’t get me started.

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Up the Valley: Far out

One of the downsides for single women moving to the Napa Valley is that it renders them suddenly geographically undesirable as potential dates for the majority of available single men living in the Bay Area (of which there are currently two dozen or so).

Women here wishing to date men in, say, San Francisco, must cope with a Geographic Undesirability Index (GUI) rating of at least 6, spiking to 8 in the summer (when there’s traffic). This compares favorably to Sacramento and Santa Cruz women, who have a GUI closer to 10, which is the highest number there is, because any farther and why bother.

Other than Christopher Reeve, who used a time machine to travel back 60 years to date Jane Seymour in a movie, men as a rule are unwilling to drive more than 50 miles to date any woman, 25 if there’s a toll bridge involved.

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