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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

Napa: Agricultural Eden?

Napa is one of California's smallest but best-known counties, largely because of its 40,000 acres of vineyards and 280 wineries. Journalist James Conaway has written two books on Napa, and is planning a third, to describe America's "agricultural Eden," the place that Robert Louis Stevenson said could produce "bottled poetry." Conaway concludes that the immigration of wealthy vanity vintners, local politicians torn between new money and traditional agricultural values, and environmental zealots opposed to farming or development threaten the Napa Eden.

Producing and selling wine in the Napa valley is one of the most successful examples of agri-tourism, attracting five million people a year to visit and pay full retail prices for wine as they visit wineries. Napa is on the fringe of the nine-county Bay area, the fifth largest urban area in the US, and the Napa Valley has become a popular weekend getaway for Bay Area residents, many of whom want to be grape growers and wine makers. During the 1990s boom, many millionaires "discovered" Napa, and some built Macmansions on the hills of the Napa Valley, fought with environmentalists to develop vineyards on steep slopes, and sought to produce "cult cabernets" that could command $500 or more a bottle. Conaway decries the newcomers' lack of appreciation of agriculture, and celebrates the 1990s activists who challenged the right of the newcomers to plant vines on hillsides, although he ultimately concludes the activists went "too far."

Most of the 2002 Conaway book focuses on the lawsuits over hillside vineyards that pitted environmentalists and some established valley wineries against moneyed newcomers. Hillsides are less fertile, and some winemakers think they produce less quantity but higher quality fruit from stressed vines.

The question is how Napa county should regulate vineyards on hillsides. Napa was the first agricultural county to establish itself as an agricultural preserve, asserting in 1968 that agriculture and open space was the "best use" for the land in the "fertile valley and foothill areas of Napa County." About 30,000 acres of Napa county are in the agricultural preserve, and homes built outside city limits must be on a minimum 160 acres (the limit was 40 acres). However, wineries can be built on as few as 10 acres, and in 1988, when Napa had 186 wineries and 50 on the drawing boards, a battle erupted over the definition of a winery. Would new wineries be able to offer tours and tastings? What kinds of sideline businesses could they operate, such as restaurants and gift shops? What percentage of grapes in "Napa Valley" wine must be grown in Napa county?

The issue was resolved with a 1990 Napa ordinance requiring new wineries to use at least 75 percent grapes grown in the county if they wanted to put Napa on their wine labels. However, the ordinance did not address the issue of a winery selling wine from grapes that are not produced nearby-- some wineries truck in their grapes from other parts of the county. Furthermore, wineries in Napa county's five cities are exempt from the 75 percent requirement. The issue of Napa wine has become even murkier. In 2000, Napa got a state law approved that required 75 percent Napa-grown grapes in Napa-labeled wines, but that law was declared unconstitutional by a state appeals court in 2002, a victory for Bronco Wine Company, which bottles 300,000 cases of wine a year from Central Valley grapes in Napa and labels them Napa Ridge and Napa Creek.

The hillside vineyard trouble started in 1989, when Delia Viader, daughter of an Argentine diplomat, dynamited a hillside to plant vines above the reservoir that supplies water to the city of St. Helena- without a permit. Heavy rains led to run off, but Viader refused to pay a fine. Environmentalist neighbor Chris Malan took offense, and Napa county enacted a hillside erosion ordinance in 1990, which requires erosion-control measures for hillside vineyards. Malan and the environmentalists did not stop and, with money from Peter Mennen, a former hippie and St. Helena postmaster who inherited millions in 1992, launched an attack on what they called "alcohol farming." They dominated the local Sierra Club, which sued Napa county in 1999 for approving the planting of new vineyards without requiring environmental impact statements. The county settled in 2000 by agreeing to require new vineyards to pass muster with the California Environmental Quality Act, but this led to a flurry of applications for new vineyards before new restrictions went into effect.

Napa Valley has changed with the success of its wines and tourism. Conaway's 1990 book explained how visionary vintners such as Robert Mondavi and Jack Davies increased the quality of American wine, changing the orientation from quantity to quality while leading an effort to preserve Napa valley for agriculture. However, the 2002 book focuses on what Conaway sees as the negative changes-- benchmarks such as paying more than $100,000 an acre for undeveloped land, charging more than $100 a bottle for wine, and turning the historic Inglenook winery into a tourist attraction based on movies and wine.

During the 1990s, new characters emerged in Napa who, according to Conaway. were more interested in personal gratification than in preserving America's Eden. Among the villains is movie-maker Francis Ford Coppola, who bought Inglenook and instructed staff to "enhance the merchandise" by selling T-shirts and movie paraphernalia with wine. According to Conaway, the Disney-esque Coppola winery is symbolic of the Napa's tourist-driven transformation, and the high prices paid by Coppola for farm land require him to attract tourists. In December 2002, Coppola paid a record $350,000 an acre for the Cohn Vineyard in Rutherford. Another villain is lawyer Jayson Pahlmeyer, who produced a Chardonnay and got wine critic Robert Parker to review and rate it highly. A movie producer saw the review, asked for a case, used the wine as a seductive instrument in a 1994 movie, Disclosure, and created a cult wine whose price jumped from $5 to $95 a bottle. Screaming Eagle Cabernet set the record for a cult wine--a six-liter bottle of 1992 Cabernet was sold for $500,000 at the Napa Valley wine auction, a charity event, in 2000.

Conaway sees his book as a wake-up call to preserve Napa Valley vineyards from being paved over for housing and tourist-related businesses, and to preserve traditional growers and vintners against upstarts willing to spend money to literally move mountains. Conaway only acknowledges in passing the larger forces reshaping Napa- flat US wine consumption and rising imports, the emergence of new wine producing and wine tourism areas, including in nearby Sonoma county as well as in the coastal regions between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the tensions that arise from high-priced housing and low-wage workers.

The worker issue has dominated headlines in the past few years. A peak 6,000 farm workers are employed in September and another 7,000 peak workers are employed in wineries. Wages are higher than average in the Napa Valley, but housing costs are also higher, and many workers complain they are not much better off in Napa unless they sleep in their cars or camp along the Napa river. When local activists threatened to picket in front of wineries to call attention to the lack of affordable housing, or to close the major highway through the valley in peak tourist season, Napa leaders acted. They were responsible for getting a state law approved that allows vineyards to assess themselves $7.66 an acre to subsidize farm worker housing and about $300,000 was generated in 2002.

Napa county voters in March 2002 amended the Napa County General Plan to allow agricultural landowners to split off sections of two acres or more for the purpose of constructing up to five more farm worker housing centers; typical centers hold 60 workers. A 60-bed center, being constructed on land donated by Joseph Phelps, will be the Cadillac of farm worker housing, with two dormitories, a multipurpose building and staff apartments- at $3 million, it will cost $50,000 a bed, and be unable to recover its operating costs at $14 a day for room and board.

Is it better to subsidize housing or raise wages? The average price of Napa wine grapes--$2,500 a ton- is five times the average $500 in the rest of California, but wages are only about 1.5 times higher, $10 to $12 an hour compared to $7 to $8. Conaway sees Napa Valley's success as emanating from paternalistic and forward-looking visionaries, and decries the newly moneyed who seem to care little about preserving an agricultural Eden. The 2001 vision statement of the Napa county Board of Supervisors says its goal is to: "Preserve and enhance the environment, open space, natural resources and the agricultural economy." Conaway doubts they will succeed.

Jeff Cox's three-part book is aimed at start up growers and wine makers. It provides a useful step-by-step approach to selecting grapes and soil and planting and harvesting grapes. Cox covers the basics, beginning with how much wine you want to make, through planting, trellising, and crushing and bottling. Most home winemakers do to grow their own grapes, in part because a glut of grapes makes it easy and cheap to buy grapes. A ton of grapes costs $500 to $1,000 and makes two barrels or about 50 12-bottle cases of wine.

Conaway, James. 2002. The Far Side of Eden. New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley and 1990. Napa. The Story of an American Eden. Houghton Mifflin. Cox, Jeff. From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine. Storey Books.

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