Battle lines are drawn in Napa as environmentalists clash with the winemakers over land use. ADAM LECHMERE investigates

Battle lines are drawn in Napa as environmentalists clash with the winemakers over land use. ADAM LECHMERE investigates

If tarring and feathering hadn’t been outlawed in California, Jim Conaway would still be picking the black stuff out of his ears. As the author of recently published The Far Side of Eden; subtitled ‘New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley’, he has been made to feel more than a little unwelcome in Napa.

In his book Conaway says Big Money is taking over and pushing out the old-timers. He recounts the battles Napa vintners have had over the years with the environmental lobby. He names names. And Napa is riled. While he wasn’t exactly run out of town at the end of last year, Conaway was banned from speaking at two St Helena venues. It’s difficult to find a winemaker to speak a word in his favour.

So, all is not well in Eden. Napa may be a paradise for wine grapes, but it’s proving less than hospitable for a tiny, translucent crustacean called the fairy shrimp. And now, this vernal pool fairy shrimp has become the centre of a protracted and increasingly acrimonious dispute between environmentalists and Beringer Vineyards, one of the biggest wineries in California.

Beringer wants to build an enormous new bottling, blending and warehousing plant close to Napa airport to the south of the valley. The land is zoned for agricultural and industrial use, but building work has stopped because the winery is being sued.

The Beringer case – the lawsuit was filed by national environmental organisation The Sierra Club – is not isolated. All over Napa, Sonoma and beyond, wineries are coming up against environmentalists determined to put a stop to what they consider rampant agricultural development.

The situation is getting heated. Off-record, vintners and owners are exasperated that their developments are being blocked. Insults are being hurled by both sides. Some of the most powerful names in California wine are involved.

The Sierra Club claims the Napa River is silting up, wetlands are being destroyed, the hillsides threatened, the water table depleted, a monoculture created. It cites a series of endangered species: the fairy shrimp, the tiger salamander, the steelhead salmon, a flower called the contra costa goldfield.

The case of the Napa River and the steelhead salmon epitomises the gulf between the environmentalists and the wineries. In June last year, the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board published the results of a survey about the state of the river.

The Napa River Basin Limiting Factors Analysis states: ‘There are a large number of known or potential barriers and impediments to fish passage in the Napa River watershed.’ The steelhead salmon, it goes on to say, is not breeding as it should.

The Sierra Club is calling for ‘setbacks’ – fallow land either side of streams, to minimise run-off of soil. Depending on the size and quality of the stream (whether it supports fish life, for example), the setback should be between 50 and 350 feet. A 350-foot setback either side of a class-1 stream, on agricultural real estate second only in value to Burgundy, is not a proposition growers welcome wholeheartedly.

’The agriculture industry feels setbacks are a threat to their very survival,’ says John Stephens, chair of the Napa chapter of the Sierra Club. Yet, he explains of the Club: ‘We don’t compromise because the result of a compromise is ruination.’

John Trefethen of Trefethen winery, Napa, agrees that the Napa River has a problem, but, he adds, ‘there is little on what’s causing it and what the solution is. We are trying to solve an issue of which we don’t know the cause.’

Napa winemakers say they are willing to discuss the issue, but are constantly dismayed by the Sierra Club’s spikiness. It’s as if Goliath had sat down in front of David, ready to parlay, only to get a slingshot straight in the eye.

In another case, Beringer vs the Fairy Shrimp, the full arsenal has been deployed. In December 2001, the Sierra Club fired a broadside at the county’s planning department, then followed this with a lawsuit against both the county and Beringer, for threatening the vernal pools that are the Fairy Shrimp’s habitat. The fact that Beringer is digging a new vernal pool is irrelevant; they are rare and delicate climatic phenomena and cannot be recreated so easily, the Sierra Club says.

Beringer is on a mitigation offensive. ‘We have recently offered to permanently set aside 4–6 hectares of wetland in another part of the Valley,’ says PR chief Mora Cronin. ‘If we can work with the Sierra Club we can come up with a blueprint.’

Good humour tempered by exasperation characterises the impasse. But the balance is tipping: Joseph Phelps’ vice president Bill Phelps is dismayed that they are seen as rapacious big business.

Phelps points to San Jose, 55 miles south of San Francisco (Napa is 55 miles north of the city). ‘A hundred years ago San Jose was one of the most beautiful agricultural valleys in the state. Now it’s strip malls, valley wall to valley wall. The same would have happened here (if wineries had not preserved the land).’

The vintners say their aims are the same as the environmentalists. Napa has some of the tightest planning rules in America – the 1991 Hillside Ordinance, the brand-new Viewshed Ordinance, the Agricultural Preserve Ordinance – all designed to keep the land free of concrete, and most pushed through by the vintners themselves over the last 10 years.

They say they are the best stewards of the land, and no one argues this more passionately than Delia Viader, cult Howell Mountain producer, despite being fined numerous times over the years for violating planning controls.

Local newspaper Napa Valley Register claimed recently that Viader herself inspired the Hillside Ordinance when chunks of her steep vineyard slid into Bell Canyon reservoir, St Helena’s main water source. Earlier this year she reached a civil court settlement, paying a $30,000 fine for planting 220 olive trees without a permit.

Viader denies her vineyard fell into the reservoir and considers she’s been pilloried. ‘The project was a model project. [Planting olives] has been proven by the Napa Resource Conservation District to be the best way to develop a hillside from an erosion control point of view.’

Vintners are alarmed that the community (‘the people at the bottom of the hill’) no longer seems to be behind them, when five years ago they were. As Bill Phelps says: ‘We’ve done a poor job of PR.’

The vintners can’t believe what they are doing can be misinterpreted. Not only do they have some of the most progressive environmental legislation in the country, but they have also spent the last two years putting together a ‘Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices’, 300 pages, that the Wine Institute of California aims to make an industry standard.

The will to find that common ground is certainly there. But a feeling of ‘them and us’ persists. Mark Couchman of Silverado Premium Properties decided the best way was to ask the Sierra Club what he had to do to ensure it would not sue the county for approving his proposals. ‘I cut a deal,’ he says. That included no oak tree removal, and stream setback of 150 feet. But some growers are annoyed Couchman has now set a benchmark setback which is double the county’s requirements. ‘I have been criticised for breaking ranks,’ he says.

This is a peculiarly American story, in which the concept of individual freedoms is never far away. The vintners want to do what they think best. They are pilgrims, and they are proud of their land. Why would they want to hurt it?

The environmentalists guard their land just as jealously. They want Eden to be a little less developed than it is. They don’t want vines on every hillside, and where there are vines, they mustn’t disrupt a single natural feature, shrimps or views.

It’s not a case of might versus right, however satisfying it would be to see the contest of winemaker against environmentalist in those terms. Napa is still unspoilt, despite the burgeoning traffic on Highway 29, and it’s the winemakers – the most powerful force in the Valley, after all – who have kept it that way. Why would they damage what is their most precious asset? Then again, only some eight percent of the valley is planted to vine. There’s gold in them there hills.

Written by ADAM LECHMERE