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…”