A Little Hell Just Broke Loose in Napa Wine Country

A little bit of hell broke loose in Napa Valley recently. And the devil still seems to be on the loose.

In 2016 a group of “environmentalists” who seem to be bent on rolling back the wine industry in the Valley gathered enough signatures to put an “Oak Woodlands Preservation” initiative on the local ballot. It was an onerous piece of legislation that would have essentially removed property owners’ rights to plant new vineyards in the Valley because five-inch wide oak trees are so critical to our economy and because the planning and political process that has left the Napa Valley watershed engulfed in oak trees is offensive since it has allowed one, single oak tree to be removed in favor of a vine.

The initiative failed. On a technicality. It got enough signatures, but local vintners and growers organizations strongly opposed the measure (why wouldn’t they?) and after a protracted court battle, the anti-farming measure never made it to the ballot.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago the Napa Valley Vintners (which represents many of Napa’s wineries, though not all) announced they had come to an agreement with the above-mentioned environmentalists to put a new Oak Woodlands Protection initiative on the ballot. The initiative was filed with the County and all that was needed was enough citizen signatures.

The NV Vintners’ partnership on the new Oak Woodland Initiative with the same environmentalists they had so recently opposed took a few people by surprise. Particularly Vintner members…the vast majority of whom had no idea such an initiative was coming down the pike. Moreover, other local organizations including the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Napa County Farm Bureau and the Winegrowers of Napa County had no idea an initiative supported by the more powerful Napa Valley Vintners was coming.

My sources tell me that a number of Vintner members showed up unannounced at the Vintners’ offices asking what the hell their Board of Directors had done? and that calls and emails from Vintners members resulted in the same question.

The best-articulated opposition to the fiasco came from Stu Smith, owner of Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain who penned a letter to the Napa Register. Entitled “NVV (Napa Valley Vintners) Is Tone Deaf When It Comes To Land Use Politics” the letter is well worth a read to get a sense of what opposition to shutting down farming in Napa sounds like in its most reasonable and adamant form.

The Vintners public defense of their actions came in the form of a letter from Michael Honig, vintner and Chairman of the Board of the Napa Valley Vintners. The letter amounts to an “If you can’t beat them, join them” argument. And ends with this: “We are confident that ultimately, once questions are answered, this collaborative effort will be welcomed by both the community and the greater wine industry as a positive, proactive step toward protecting Napa Valley.”

About a week later, the environmentalists who worked with Mr. Honig and the Vintners filed a second initiative that is even more onerous than that which they collaborated on with the Vintners.

I don’t think the Napa Valley Vintners saw that one coming. They got stabbed in the back by their partners once their partners heard there was dissension in the Vintners’ ranks.

Last Friday, the Vintners lobbed their next volley in a letter sent out to the association’s members in which they announced they would, “Suspend our work on the compromise 2018 Watershed and Oak Woodland Initiative…Support a professionally-mediated consensus-building process that includes leaders from both the local wine and environmental communities…and…Work toward a February 1, 2018 deadline which would allow for any new proposed initiative to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.”

Let me translate that: “Shit…Ok…we heard you, members. Let’s talk with the understanding we have no commitment to support any initiative.”

It’s not easy to run an association as important and powerful as the Napa Valley Vintners. Their responsibilities are vast. The number of folks who rely on them is many more than you might imagine. And their ability to meet their responsibilities determines the kind of confidence that keeps them effective.

The problem for the Vintners didn’t begin when they launched an initiative without the support of their members. It began because Mr. Honig and his peers on his Board of Directors were correct in their assessment of the environmental politics of the Valley: They could not beat the environmentalists. The Oak Woodland initiative was going to be coming again and it has a good chance of not just getting on the ballot, but passing also.

That left the Vintners with a couple choices:

-Oppose the Initiative with everything they had.


-Join the process and try to protect the interests of their members best they could and leave future prospective growers screwed.

They chose the latter.

I think this is the wrong choice. First, the initiative is hogwash. It’s a solution looking for a problem. Second, fighting the initiative and making the case against the anti-farming nimbys and losing wouldn’t impact the Vintners’ power the way they think it might. Sure, some people might lose their jobs or board positions, but the inherent power of the organization wouldn’t have been weakened terribly.

In the end, it was the unfortunate way the Vintners handle their membership and, by extension, all growers and vintners in the Valley, by working in secret with nimbys and not polling their membership on the matter first. The vocal industry backlash simply gave the anti-farming contingent reason to throw the Vintners overboard and go with something more onerous than they originally had agreed upon with the Vintners.

If the Napa Valley Vintners, the Grapegrowers, the Winegrowers and the Farm Bureau decide to work together and with other allies to oppose the initiative, if they make the principled argument loud and clear, if they lobby the right people, if they spend some money to oppose the initiative, they could beat it back. It’s far from a sure thing, but it’s certainly worth the fight. 


19 Responses

  1. Roger King - October 4, 2017

    Ask Chuck Wagner how he is doing in Solano County on such issues, may be a very different story on this side of the county line. Business welcoming rather than business destruction.

  2. Wallace Gromit - October 4, 2017

    We must find a balance between alcohol corporations and mother nature. Most Napa voters understand this. The board was right to seek a compromise. Greed is dripping from your pen, Tom.

    • Tom Wark - October 4, 2017

      Wallace, thank you for commenting.

      I think you mean to say that the greed is oozing from my keyboard.

      In any case, you would be spot on if only I had a piece of land to destroy with a vineyard or a winery with which to rape the environment. But I don’t. So, there’s that.

  3. Kellie Anderson - October 4, 2017

    Viticulture these days is a resource extraction dependent industry. When do we stop the deforestation? This is not sustainable. Do we give up the watershed for rich dot comers dreams?

  4. Kellie Anderson - October 4, 2017

    A solution looking for a problem. Really? Is logging at the very headwaters of Linds Falls to develope a vineyard a problem? Most would say yes. Time for change. Stu Smith is old guard. Real farmers don’t cut down trees. Real farmers respect and conserve the watershed.

    • Tom Wark - October 4, 2017

      Ms. Anderson:

      You wrote:

      “Viticulture these days is a resource extraction dependent industry. When do we stop the deforestation?”


      “Stu Smith is old guard. Real farmers don’t cut down trees. Real farmers respect and conserve the watershed.”

      Though I can’t be sure, I’d guess its these kinds of outrageous statements and these kind of insults that lead people to not take you seriously. But I can’t be sure.

  5. Bob Henry - October 4, 2017


    Talk to Richard Sanford on this issue. He has been a long and persistent advocate for protecting native California oak trees in the Central Coast. But he is also a vintner who understands land management (having graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in geography).

    ~~ Bob

  6. Donn Rutkoff - October 5, 2017

    I don’t own any land in Napa. Don’t live in Napa. When I drive around, I still see a lot of untouched acreage. Forest land. Old groves of trees. I hardly see a ravaged landscape with too much cultivation. What % of the county total acreage is presently cultivated, or inhabited? 5? 8? Oh, never mind. I don’t count. I just work in the industry. I don’t see vines as an affront to nature.

    • Tom Wark - October 5, 2017


      Napa County is approximately 504,000 acres. Total acres under vine is roughly 45,000. That’s about 9% of total county land under vine. This is very crude way of explaining the impact of viticulture in the County. However, it’s of what’s going on.

      • Donn Rutkoff - October 5, 2017

        Tom, thanks. I can’t help but laugh at so called environmentalists who think that the view they saw as a child should be preserved forever or at least their lifetime. Never mind what your home looked like 100 years ago or 200. Nor what unemployment will look like if you want to de-cultivate Napa. If they think CA is short of trees, make a short drive up n down Lake Humboldt Shasta counties etc. Or, heaven forbid, the Sonoma and Mendo coastlines.

  7. Fred Reed - October 5, 2017

    Sounds like Napa County is becoming more like Santa Barbara County.

  8. Yeoryios C. Apallas - October 6, 2017

    Dear Tom,

    I, too am a grape grower and a member of the board of the Napa County Farm Bureau. My comments reflect my personal views and not those of the NCFB.

    For too long now the promiscuous grant of winery permits have made the Napa valley a difficult place to navigate by car or other means. Tourism has been a priority for the Valley Board of Supervisors and the Napa City Council. Much of the available AP land has been already planted and some which has been planted (although a small amount) is now being paved over for event centers. There is undeniable pressure on the AW zone to remove oak woodlands for vineyards and other construction. Truly sad. Meanwhile the temperature of the Earth is undeniably getting warmer. “The proponents of the Woodlands Initiative strongly believe, and I agree with them as a farmer, grape grower, and grandfather, that natural areas along streams and wetlands play a critical role in protecting Napa County water resources by reducing erosion, alleviating flooding, and improving water quality. “Trees and vegetation along streams and wetlands, filter water for municipal, rural and agricultural use, reduce water pollution, and provide important habitat for fish and wildlife.The Initiative provides enhanced protection for these areas by preserving forest and riparian habitat along stream corridors and wetlands within the AW zoning district.” See, Purpose and Findings of Initiative.

    These are important goals for any civilized agrarian/commercial/industrial society. If Napa County citizens can do their part while balancing the interests of other affected stakeholders, good for us all. Enlightened government would normally attempt to balance various environmental, commercial, and agricultural interests for the advancement of the public health and welfare. The Napa County Board of Supervisors, and the Napa City Council have failed miserably in meeting their task. Thus, the citizens had to take matters into their own hands–not to girdle the healthy growth of agricultural and commercial enterprises–but to provide much needed balance.

    I wanted to provide another perspective to this debate so that my grape grower and farmer friends can understand what the attempt and goals of the authors (and most recently the enlightened leadership of NVV) are all about when they crafted this initiative. It’s not about the “Benjamins” , it’s about the health and sustainability of Mother Earth.

    Respectfully, Yeoryios C. Apalla.

    • Tom Wark - October 6, 2017


      Thanks for your comment and I respect your opinion. A couple things…

      1. Has the water supply in Napa Valley in terrible shape?

      2. When I hear or see someone use the term “event center” in place of winery, I tend almost always to disregard the comments that surround it. Can you tell me how “winery” and “event center” differ? Since when is wine sampling and hospitality a dirty word?

      You and supporters of the intitiative have made many claims concerning the state of the Valley’s environment. But can someone (perhaps you) please be factual about the claims. If you can’t show the Valley is in such a shape that current regulations won’t maintain its condition, then what’s the point of the initiative?

      As I stated above….A solution looking for a problem.

  9. William Lyman - October 6, 2017

    Tom, I wonder what your thoughts are about what appropriate limits, if any, to vinyard growth in Napa Valley should be.

    • Tom Wark - October 6, 2017


      What I see here in Napa is an extraordinarily successful wine industry that has been at the forefront of conservation. I see clearn water. I see an industry activelyl pursuing sustainability.

      I also see not so much environmentalists, but a group that calls themselves environmentalists that don’t know the first thing about the wine industry. I see them running around saying that DTC sales are not necessary. They say that the need for direct to consumer sales is a “myth”. They call every winery that has a permit to host visitors an “event center”. And they have as their mission a dimunition of the industry in Napa. They oppose every single proposal for a winery expansion or new winery, no matter how harmless it is. They give zero deference to property rights.

      Until that kind of activism stops, you won’t see me making one single statement in support of their goals or making any claim that any vineyard development is too much, no matter how I feel about.

  10. Paul Vandenberg - October 6, 2017

    Whew! I think being a winegrower during harvest may be easier. See your blog sometimes and usually get a kick out of it. This one? Glad I’m not in CA, happy in the Yakima Valley.?✌?️

  11. Hugh Linn - October 7, 2017

    There are two key elements of the initiative that many people miss:
    1. It completely disregards the Conservation Regulations
    2. More Residential Development in the AW zoning will become discretionary and require a CEQA clearance
    Supporters of the initiative will say that greed slants my opinion because I own an engineering firm. The truth is that the need for my services increases when new regulations, especially poorly crafted regulations like this one, come into force. Unfortunately my clients will have to pay someone to clear the red tape and they have to pay the County to process these new permits. The price of building a home on a min 40 acre parcel will only continue to skyrocket.

  12. Brenda - October 8, 2017

    Tom, Thank you for your efforts to keep the issues fact based. Napa Valley is a beautiful place to live and work. The vineyards, the wines and the visitors are the basis for the economy and amenities we all enjoy in this valley. There are many, some would say too many, regulations now. We live within them, but let’s don’t continue to restrict the basic rights of landowners. If the people of Napa Valley want the valley to be a national forest, then they should start buying the land to hold it as such. The Napa Land Trust already has created acres of protected land in Napa Valley. The supporters of this initiative should support the Land Trust with their time and money. I think many who want to fight the industry that makes the valley work are guilty of their own form of greed. I would say to those who want more regulation – please don’t further restrict our use of the land we bought and paid for with our money and our passion.

  13. Nic - October 27, 2017

    No more vineyards. No more wineries, or “wineries”… No more out of towners. No more People like you who come here and claim this place as yours. If you werent born here, and don’t raise children here, you do not belong here. I am a true native. This land is mine. This land belongs to those who truly deserve it. Not rich outsiders, not political dumb dumbs, not you. Lets perfect what we have already. Lets sustain that much. Go somewhere else please.

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