A June ballot initiative that would limit removal of oak trees for new vineyards has exposed rifts within Napa County’s wine industry.
The Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative would cap oak removal from hillsides in an effort supporters say is designed to preserve remaining hillside habitat and protect fragile watersheds.
Supporters submitted more than 7,000 signatures to the county elections office last month. Only 3,800 signatures were required to qualify it for the ballot. County election officials certified the signatures earlier this month. Among other things, the measure would cap future oak-forest removal for new vineyards at 795 acres.
This is the legislation’s second time around, albeit in a different form. It was on the ballot in June 2016, but the county invalidated it before election day because of a technicality. At that time, the county’s wine and agricultural industry organizations presented a united front against the initiative, a measure they claimed was unnecessary given the regulations winegrowers already face.
A number of those groups—the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Winegrowers of Napa Valley—all oppose the proposed legislation this time around too. But in the case of the powerful Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) trade group, their opposition constitutes an about-face that is rankling winemakers inside the member-based organization and out.
Last year, initiative organizer Mike Hackett got a cold call from NVV government relations director Rex Stults who said he wanted to discuss possible collaboration. Hackett says he was skeptical about the overture, but says Stults reached out to him because polls revealed the measure would likely pass.
“That really shook them up,”
A small group from the NVV, which included former board chair Michael Honig, met over lunch with Hackett and his co-organizer Jim Wilson.
“It was cordial,” says Hackett.
The group continued to meet over the next seven months and agreed to compromise on the proposed streamside setbacks and settled on the 795-acre cap. This unlikely meeting between wine industry and environmental activists bore fruit. In September, the NVV board voted unanimously to support the initiative. The Napa County Board of Supervisors praised the bipartisan compromise.
But the good feelings didn’t
When the greater membership of the 500-member NVV and Napa’s other wine and agriculture industry groups learned of the proposed legislation the two sides hammered out, the pushback was loud and often vitriolic, says Honig.
“I was surprised how angry people got,” he says. “When the board saw what the pushback was, they got nervous.”
A few weeks later, the NVV board voted to suspend its support for the very legislation it helped write. On Jan. 11, the board voted unanimously to oppose the initiative. In a statement, the organization said its opposition is based on the sentiments of a majority of its members and their belief that the initiative is “legally uncertain” and fear of “unintended consequences for agriculture if it becomes law.”
“The NVV believes the initiative is not the proper way to further the goal of protecting Napa County’s woodlands and watershed,” the statement said.
Napa Valley Vintners communications director Patsy McGaughy would not provide further explanation or say what is the proper way to protect woodland and watershed areas. Stults would not comment. It’s not clear whether the NVV will actively campaign against the initiative.
As the compromise heads to the polls, a group of winemakers, some of whom are members of the NVV, are banding together in support of the initiative. Among them is famed vintner and NVV member Warren Winiarski.
In 1976, a bottle of Winiarski’s first vintage of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon placed first among French and California red wines at the legendary Judgment of Paris tasting. But in his support for the ballot initiative, Winiarski recalls another key date in the Napa Valley.
“This initiative will support the work I was involved in back in 1968,” he says, referring to the creation of the county’s historic agricultural preserve, an ordinance widely touted for keeping housing development pressure at bay and allowing the wine industry to thrive. “It’s strengthening something that needs strengthening.”
The agricultural preserve marks it 50th anniversary this year, an event both sides of the debate are citing to make their case.
Winiarski and his winemaker allies say now Napa Valley needs protection from wineries and vineyards which they say are exploiting their status in the agricultural preserve at the expense of water quality, biodiversity and the carbon capturing potential of trees.
Were the initiative to fail, says Winiarski, “it would have quite a negative impact on the totality of what this valley is about.”
Winemaker Randy Dunn, who is not a NVV member, is also joining the effort in support of the initiative.
“We’ve got to save what we’ve got left,” he says, rejecting the charge that the initiative is anti-agriculture.
“Some people are dumb enough to think if we don’t keep planting grapes we’ll end up like Santa Clara County. It’s not going to make any winemakers go bankrupt.”
Hackett says that while the wine industry is divided, he believes support for the measure is strong.
“We have wide community support, and we’re going to win this.”
In spite of his advisory status on the NVV board, which is now chaired by Opus One Winery CEO David Pearson, Honig says he’s going to vote for the initiative. While he says many of his winemaker colleagues have legitimate concerns about it, he doesn’t think it
will have the devastating impact some critics fear, and there are more pressing issues to be concerned with.
“This [issue] is just a blip,”
He says his goal in reaching out to the authors of the initiative was to improve on the 2016 version and make it more palatable to the wine industry since it was headed for the ballot again.
“I believe we achieved that,” he says. “I’m not frustrated with the product, but I’m frustrated with all the angst within my industry.”
But now it’s up to voters.
“That’s what democracy is about,” saus Honig