Some Napa winemakers and environmentalists feel the Valley has reached its limit. They say too many vineyards are hurting the environment — but their solution is producing a divisive battle at the ballot box.
The view from Winemaker Warren Winiarski’s backyard is incredible. He points out the oak trees that line the hillsides into the green valley floor.
Further down are rows of his vines — grapes that put him and the entire Napa Valley on the map over 50 years ago.
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In the ‘60s, there were a handful of popular vineyards here and there, but thousands of acres were still untouched. When he began to build Stag’s Leap Cellars, Winiarski imagined what the valley could look like if it was left in the hands of developers who could subdivide the land.
“I knew we would not be able to save the Valley for agriculture if you could divide any parcel up into one-acre pieces. That had already been happening. We had some experience with Santa Clara Valley and I knew that houses were coming,” Winiarski says as he shows me around his property, pointing out grapes that have won international awards.
He and a bunch of other winemakers campaigned for what is now the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, an ordinance that protects nearly 40,000 acres of land for grape growing. He says this foresight made Napa Valley world famous.
Now, though, he’s supporting Napa County’s Measure C — an initiative to slow the amount of vineyard growth to ultimately protect water resources in the region.
“When we passed the Agricultural Preserve there were almost zero number of acres that were irrigated in this valley — and now we have almost zero number of acres that are not irrigated,” he says.
Winiarski and the authors of Measure C say: if we don’t preserve the streams and oak trees of the Napa Valley hillside, there won’t be enough water to grow anything.
“There won’t be viticulture if you don’t have the water. Napa is a victim of its own success.”
The Valley floor is packed with vineyards and there’s no space to expand. So winemakers who want to increase their crop have to plant new vines on the valley’s hillsides which, right now, are covered with one of California’s densest concentrations of oak woodlands.
“Oak woodlands are being converted. We want to stop it. The resource is finite, it's not unlimited, Winiarski says.
Nearly all of the oak trees that used to coat the valley floor are gone. Environmentalist Jim Wilson says these oak trees directly replenish and strengthen Napa Valley’s water supply.
“The oaks reach up into the sky. They receive the rain and they allow it to go softly into the ground and into the duff — that's that spongy material below the oaks,” he says. This enables water to settle fully into the ground and replenish the local aquifers, rather than drain directly into local creeks, streams and the Napa River.
That’s why Measure C would put a cap on the number of oak trees a Napa landowner can remove. Once that quota has been met, landowners will have to apply for a permit to cut down additional trees. The Measure would also create a buffer zone around streams where no tree of any type can be removed.
On the way to a winery in Calistoga, I pass dozens of signs for the “NO on Measure C” campaign. Some are sprayed over with black graffiti.
The “No” campaign has raised five times as much as Measure C’s supporters.
Mike Davis has donated thousands.
We meet up as he’s seeing off a group of tourists at his winery. He wears a giant cowboy hat and brand new sneakers.
Davis got into the wine business only recently, in 2011 after making a fortune in the tech industry,
“[We] ended up buying about seven different properties in Napa Valley,” he says. “They’ve turned out to be great investments because I’m not doing anything with it except enjoying it.”
He’s made his winery a high-end destination — but he also highlights the ways he is trying to be sustainable.
“We have, you know, bat houses,” he says. “We have birdhouses. We have solar panels. We recycle our water.”
He’s planted most of his land but still wants to cultivate one 40 acre parcel down the road on Howell Mountain, an area known for growing great grapes.
And it has lots oak trees on it.
If Measure C passes, he says he’d struggle to plant vineyards there. It’s pitted him against his neighbor, winemaker Randy Dunn, who supports the measure.
Dunn has created a nature preserve on Howell Mountain, right next to Davis’s vacant land, and wants Davies to donate it to the preserve — or at least not cut down a bunch of oak trees on the property.
Davis argues that there are already restrictions in the first place.
“There's actually, in my opinion, an overabundance of regulations to protect the environment,” he says.
They say new regulations such as Measure C would undermine their right to farm — one that has been protected for 50 years, ever since the agricultural preserve was established.
If Measure C passes, he’s prepared to go to court.
“The determination of what a land-use owner can do and what he can't do is very vague and it opens itself up for legal interpretation,” Davis says.
Environmentalists say, when it comes to preserving trees and Napa’s dwindling water supply, that the cost of more regulations is worth it.