BLISS-fully Ignorant in Napa and Sonoma Wine Country

winecountryShepard Bliss (what a great name!) is the latest in what is becoming a slew of people pushing back against the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma Counties. The anti-industry activists appear to be concerned the growth in the industry will cause massive harm not only to the counties and their environments, but also to the quality of life for residents.

What’s interesting about these anti-winery activists is the remarkably disingenuous way they are trying to make their case against wineries. Mr. Bliss is a perfect example.

In a recent editorial in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (“Sonoma County David v. Goliath Story“), Mr. Bliss uses the case of a dispute between an egg farmer and winery and road access to launch into a diatribe against the industry. It’s not entirely clear what Mr. Bliss and his brethren want, but what’s absolutely clear is that they believe a wine industry that includes anything other than  tiny vineyards tended by winemakers producing tiny amounts of wine is a bad thing.

It’s part of a backlash against success. It’s part of a desire to see certain kind of economic development suspended.

Fine. We all need a hobby-horse and Mr. Bliss, a trained psychologist and farmer, appears to have his.

But what bothers me most about his rant is the way he rants. He purposefully distorts the truth in a way we can expect to be repeated both in Napa and Sonoma if the backlash against wine continues. Bliss writes:

“Most wineries here (Sonoma County) are owned by large corporate investors from Wall Street and outside the United State, increasingly from Asia.”

He’s wrong. In fact, he knows he’s wrong. Worse yet, Bliss knows he’s wrong yet he still writes it.

The vast majority of wineries in both Napa County and Sonoma county are owned by families. They may have more or less capital and assets, but they are families nonetheless. In addition, most vineyard holdings are small. Yes, there are a few corporate-owned wineries in these counties, but they represent the tiniest of percentages of all wineries bonded in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The idea is to paint the wine industry with the patina of evil corporations….and worse, foreign corporations.

I try to buy small. I try to give my money to small, local businesses. I tire of all the chains. But I’m not so stupid as to believe that all corporations are evil. But I fear I’m in the minority these days and this is what makes Mr. Bliss’ lie a problem for the industry. Someone at the various agencies and associations that represent the Sonoma and Napa wineries better start correcting the record. Someone better start demonstrating that the vast majority of wineries in this region are small and privately owned. Someone better start getting the word out that the big corporate wineries may make lots of wine, but they represent the tiniest percentage of wineries in these counties.

If they don’t do this, Mr. Bliss’ lie is going to turn into accepted wisdom. And one thing is for sure. Once something becomes accepted wisdom, it’s pretty hard to show it to be pure dung.

14 Responses

  1. Steve - August 10, 2015

    The philosophy seems to be last one in please close the door to the rest. Same mentality about airports. Airports were built way out in the boonies and over time people (knowing the airports were there) built around airports then they scream that airport noise is terrible–FLASH: you should not have moved there then. I do not know Bliss, sure he is a fine guy, but Nebraska grows corn. why? because that’s what grows best in a Nebraska farm community. Wine country didn’t just spring up overnight, its been there since before CA was a state. I assume Mr. Bliss is wanting to pay more taxes as he controls the family wineries and vineyards.

  2. Stephen - August 10, 2015

    Just another example of “we want XYZ, but not in my backyard.”

  3. Darlene - August 10, 2015

    Mr. Bliss does seem to mis-state the report he references (The Myth of the Family Winery from 2009) but then the report itself is a tad misleading. It cites statistics like the number of wineries in CA (not by county) at the time (2800) and the % of US wine that is from CA (61%), and then says that the big corporations own 80% of the domestic (i.e. US) market with “major wine production taking place in CA”, which is not the same thing as saying that big corporations own most CA wineries. And while many wineries/vinyards are good neighbors and responsible businesses, there are those that aren’t. It is reasonable to acknowledge that without necessarily condemning the industry as a whole. That being said, I think what he wants is a little more agricultural diversity in counties that used to be quite diverse. Taking Sonoma as an example, if you look at the county crop reports for the last 60 or so years you can see that the mix of crops has tipped quite heavily toward wine grapes. In 1950 the relative # of acres in 3 particular fruits was apples – 10,874, wine grapes – 15,894, and prunes – 18,338 (who knew we used to grow so many prunes?) By 2010 the numbers were apples – 2,616, wine grapes – 56,522, and prunes – 39. It’s all about the $$/ton, of course, and wine grapes certainly beat everything else, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more balance so that other agricultural crops could thrive as well.

    • Tom Wark - August 10, 2015

      We would see more apple if the Chinese stop growing then. Yeah, ain’t gonna happen. However, you know well how apple growers can make more money and plant more in sonoma….plant cider apples.

      • Darlene - August 11, 2015

        Yes, indeed, Tom. And interest in putting in more acres of cider apples is growing as the category does. But it’s hard to imagine apples ever commanding the price of wine grapes ($2300/ton in 2014, gotta love those crop reports).

        I’m not quite sure I understand Roger’s point, though. Do not other agricultural producers, whether they be of apples or eggs, pay taxes and employ people who pay taxes? Is there only room for one thriving industry here? That being said, having read the original egg/winery story that prompted Mr. Bliss’ diatribe, this does not seem to me to be a good case for putting forth the notion that Sonoma county might be better served with a more diverse agricultural scene. The egg producers were, whether through ignorance or hubris, using the road on which their stand sat in a manner that was contrary to the access easement that existed prior to the creation of their business. That the entity owning the road, whether winery or private citizen, would ask them to stop seems entirely within their rights.

  4. Roger King - August 10, 2015

    This is a problem but not one that has not occured before. Consider what TRPA did to the economy and population of Lake Tahoe since it’s formation in 1973. Hammered economics of business, greatly reduced property values in many regions that were taken back into US Forest Sevice possession, stagnated any progressive growth to replace old poorly designed & constructed establishments with new envirommentally sound establishments. 40+ years later they are understanding.

    Tahoe’s new evironmentalist closed escrow yesterday and now NOT IN MY BACKYARD.

    In the 1970’s a phrase hit the front page of the local papers, the effort to kill the goose laying the golden egg., If this trend continues here expect great ecomomic harm to the industry that pays taxes, employees many (who pay taxes) and precludes modernizing standards that improve the healrth of the evironment and the local economy.

  5. Pablo - August 11, 2015

    For one response to Bliss,, see 20 July Press Democrat article by Karissa Kruse, President of SCWC, “Close to Home: In defense of local winegrape growers.”

    Mendocino and Lake county winegrowers & wine makers are also targets of some of our neighbors especially in relation to the drought and associated surface and groundwater issues. (And where is the public outcry and regulatory enforcement of water use by pot growers — cannabis uses about 6 gpd per plant and Lake County Cab sauv about 1.25 gpd.)

    Let’s consider a possible outcome for many of the residents of the North Coast if the objectives of Bliss and friends were to be realized ~ subsistence fishing on Clear Lake followed by a two hour commute to work “down south”.

    And perhaps someone could help me to find the hops in Hopland…

  6. Jim Caudill - August 11, 2015

    Bliss isn’t lately to the party, he’s been singing this same song since the 1990’s when he first began railing against Kendall-Jackson and others during a period of vineyard development. He has always been long on emotion and short on facts, remarkable for a University professor. Even more remarkable is his staying power and ability to go relatively unchallenged with his rants. Taking him down point by point, however, just gives him the “Trump” card (okay, I couldn’t resist) of more exposure. While he’s a blueberry farmer, he’s definitely a thorn in our collective sides….

    • Steve - August 11, 2015

      Good background and now this issue makes sense. Every community has it’s challenges.

  7. Richard - August 11, 2015

    Remember the old saying (not that I’m implying anything here and I’m just stating an opinion) – “there are lies, da*n lies! and statistics…” Seems to be a case, at least to me, of someone using various sets of articles and statistics to suit the “facts” of the ax they have to grind. The faulty syllogism here is that “most wine in the US is produced and sold by big corporations; there are big wine corporations in Sonoma and Napa; therefore big corporations control Napa and Sonoma and are causing “fill in the blank” with every evil known to humanity. Seems that sometimes, in my opinion, people have an idee fixe that takes on a life of it’s own and becomes the elephant in the room when in fact, the only elephant in the room is the large factual inaccuracy being foisted upon the public. Again, just my opinion…

    • Steve - August 11, 2015

      Sonoma and Napa do have wineries and vineyards owned by large aggratators of wine and spirits properties. Private? I am thinking in the San Joaquin valley E&J is the largest privately controlled winery that produces more than 80 million cases of wine annually for domestic consumption. So, big is big no matter the ownership. Constellation or Treasury etc. do not come close and actually own wine operators all over the world. The Wineries owned by these guys are still run pretty much as independent operations (Etude Wines is one such example which is owned by Treasury). Point being, “large” is a straw man that can be misleading and hard to define the impact. Mondavi which started this rain dance in the late 60’s isn’t family owned anymore either (thank you Constellation). Further, seems like to me the public (state and fed government) is funding the roads in much of the infrastructure in Napa and Sonoma that has allowed businesses to grow. A recent study by Napa County did discover that more than 50% of the congestion is area residents commuting and doing business in the County.
      Bliss-a community organizer also working for a government funded institution?

  8. Cate Conniff - August 11, 2015


    Thank you for your astute comments on the “remarkably disingenuous way they (these anti-winery activists) are trying to make their cases against wineries” in your post today. Growth and development are complex, pressing issues in many communities and Napa Valley is no different. Starting with the establishment in 1968 of the country’s first Agricultural Preserve and the near-continuous efforts at groundbreaking land management and conservation measures and ordinances, dedicated visionaries in a range of sectors in Napa Valley have sought to tackle tough decisions in efforts to sustain a quality of life we cherish and do not take for granted. This work continues and we look forward to finding solutions in the collaborative (albeit not without the essential dissension and differences of opinions vital to healthy debate) spirit for which the Napa Valley community is known.

    To address just one of the common misperceptions that you helped clarify in your piece, it is true that the vast majority, in fact 95%, of Napa Valley wineries are family owned. Of Napa Valley Vintners members (nearly 520), 79% produce fewer than 10,000 cases and 67% produce fewer than 5,000 cases annually. Your readers may find some of these other facts and figures about the Napa Valley wine industry to be of interest:

  9. Shouting Loud at the Wine Industry is Just Shouting - Fermentation - August 17, 2015

    […] too long ago I wrote about the really horrendous rhetoric used by anti-winery folks over in Sonoma (BLISS-Fully Ignorant in Sonoma and Napa Wine Country) concerning their view that the wine industry is ruining […]

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