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What's in store for Napa Valley?

What does the future have in store for thousands of acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley? This question, currently before the Napa County Planning Commission and beyond that, the Board of Supervisors, seriously concerns county government, frightens grapegrowers and vintners, and intrigues land developers and real estate interests.

It seriously affects all of these elements since it is the county's Number One agricultural commodity running into millions of dollars, impacting the industry, environmentalists and thousands of workers in wineries and vineyards.

The land developers would love to loosen some proposed restrictions on land use for agriculture only and be able to get their hands on some prime agricultural properties - particularly in the American Canyon region of southern Napa County.

A current Draft Environmental Impact Report now before the planning commission for the period 1990-2010 has already resulted in crowded hearings and opposition from vineyard owners, vintners, and future vineyard developers who are, in a manner of speaking, arrayed against county supervisors and planners as well as environmentalists.

The major objections to date refer to the projected numbers of acres planned for development, where they will be planted, and what the environmental impacts may be. The initial hearings in December brought out a compact delegation of Napa Valley vineyard interests who, in the main, oppose many key points raised by the EIR.

Prior to the first hearing on the draft before the planning board, over 100 copies had been mailed to vineyardists, and some of them had met informally prior to the planning session. A number of them came to raise major points of contention to sections of the report. One of these was the projection of a Richmond consulting firm that as many as 18,800 new acres of vineyards will be developed in the next 29 years, and that 70%, or nearly 13,500 acres of the total new growth, will be planted on slopes of more than 5%.

The environmental impact report also states that over 14,000 acres, or nearly 45% of existing vineyard acreage, is anticipated to be replanted in the next 20 years. The EIR baldly stated that vineyard development is almost unregulated, and excessive growth could damage air, water and soil quality and also might expose county residents to health hazards.

If vineyards grow by almost 62% this could trigger increasing demands for low-cost housing for workers and strain already overburdened demand for public service, according to the report.

One of the most critical comments by a leading vintner and vineyard owner came from Michael Martini of Louis M. Martini when he told the planning board: "I'd like to question the assumption we are going to have almost 19,000 more acres. If I question that assumption I also have to question every other thing that comes out of that document."

Most funds, and here Martini used specific numbers of $350 to $400 million, "will be going into replanting acreage now existing." Martini questioned the economic feasibility of the assumed expansion mentioned in the EIR.

Andy Beckstoffer, also a vintner and large vineyard owner, also questioned the EIR. He said that replanting, using new vineyard technology, could double the productivity of the county grape crop and that this may account for increases in the amount of grapes available, without increasing the number of acres by thousands.

He was more specific; he told the planners and the EIR authors: "Be careful, because you are talking about the lifeblood of this county and its viability. Our concern is about over-regulation. The impact of this (EIR) can conflict with our right to farm. "

A second hearing before the county planning commission was held in mid-January when still more vineyardists and other organized groups appeared to speak against the EIR draft. Lee Hudson from the Napa Valley Grape Growers Assn. told the Planning group the EIR doesn't distinguish between new vineyards and expansion or replanting old vineyards. Farmers support the intent and goal of the proem, according to Hudson and also the role of oversight, but "don't want undue pressure; some of the document is all right, other parts need clarifying amendments." Capital at the present time is tight, and it would cost much more to plant vineyards in remote areas or on slopes and hillsides, according to Hudson.

Hudson also was quoted by the Napa Register as having told the planning commission: "If the county adopts the regulations contained in the draft (EIR) report it could be devastating on an industry already watched by state and federal agencies."

Napa Valley Vintners' executive director Elaine Mackie, who heads an association of approximately 118 Napa Valley wineries, told the planning commission that the group would not question technical data and "I don't think we should overlook environmental concerns-but should be reasonable with them." She added, "we support the goal of environmentalists while preserving viticulture."

In the original presentation of the EIR, the drafters of the lengthy document stressed that all the major concerns - soil erosion, animal habitats, air quality, water usage, etc., can all be mitigated by effective regulation. Only one major problem "cannot be mitigated" according to the report, and that is the impact of increasing traffic.

Now that public comments have been heard-and these included many more comments by vineyardists and others-deadline for written comments ended Jan. 25, and the environmental impact report was to be turned to the county for certification in late February.

Meantime a lively debate also was developing by the end of 1990 on the development of the picturesque hillside acreage in the Napa Valley. A community town hall meeting took place in St. Helena where an interim hillside ordinance, approved last May, is under review. At this intense discussion, one speaker, Larry Vermeuien, president of the Napa-Solano Builder's Exchange remarked, "If this was a political science discussion it would be all right, but it is about peoples' lives and livelihoods."

Michaela Rodeno, manager of St. Supery Winery, told the meeting that a hill-side ordinance needs to be balanced because "people are very concerned about the right to plant vineyards on their property. "

The vineyard expansion and regulation environmental issue is the second phase of a county program that began in 1990 with the "What is a Winery" controversy. It, too, eventually led to many meetings with planners, environmentalists, county officials and vintners. When finally enacted the winery ordinance in major ways changed unlimited or unrestricted expansion of wineries in the county. Under the new ordinance any new winery faces tough restrictions on setbacks, size, amount of acres on which it is situated and addresses other environmental concerns. In even more detail it curtails unlimited facilities for retail sales, picnic areas, wine tastings and dinners. Despite all these regulations, many of them vigorously protested by vintners, the slowdown of winery expansion is more explained by declining consumer demand for wine than restrictions on a county basis. Driving Silverado Trail or Highway 29, one sees many signs of new winery developments these days.

(The problem with vineyards vs. land development is that people like to live in areas that can grow grapes. Hence, the ongoing situation in Napa Valley is germane to many other winegrowing regions.)


What is described by Harpers magazine as the world's most northerly vineyard harvested its first commercial crop last fall at Carden Park in Cheshire, England. It is a little south of Liverpool and about 51[degrees] latitude. Does anyone know of a vineyard north of that? Wines & Vines knows about winegrapes growing in Nova Scotia at about 45[degerees] latitude.

The Cheshire development is owned by John Broome CBE, creator of Britain's Alton Towers leisure park and was planted in 1987. It covers nine acres and contains 14,000 Seyval Blanc vines.

Broome financed research which showed ideal soil for grapes and a microclimate similar to France's Loire Valley. Harpers said experts doubted if a vineyard that far north could produce in less than four years, adding "they have been confounded by its success. " An estimated four tons of fruit were scheduled to yield 4,000 bottles of wine a year ahead of the expected first vintage.

Wines & Vines may have uncovered a reason for the unexpected early crop in a letter received from Anne and Peter Latchford who have about five acres of Muller-Thurgau near Hemel Hempstead in Herts, south of London. They wrote: "The year was very hot and the vines loved it . . . we must have gathered nearly 10 tons of fruit." The Latchfords sell under the name "Frithsden Vineyard" and hope to market all the 1990 vintage this year.
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Title Annotation:future of the Napa Valley vineyards
Author:Jacobs, Juluis L.
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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