Big Wine Blasted at North Coast California Gathering

In the heart of what corporate wine industry lobbyists have re-branded “Wine Country,” activists from four North Coast California counties gathered in early May for their third monthly meeting. They created a regional network of groups from Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties.

Participants came to the attractive resort town of Calistoga in Napa to discuss how to contain the rampant, sprawling growth of corporate vineyards and wineries as commercial, industrial event centers. They pave over agricultural land, damage the quality of rural life, and create multiple negative impacts upon the environment with respect to water, land, noise, traffic, wildlife habitat, and air quality.

Members of various national, state, regional, and local groups attended, including the following: Sierra Club, Napa County Farm Bureau, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Greenbelt Alliance, the Grange, Napa Vision 2050, Sonoma County Water Coalition, Sonoma County Conservation Action, and Preserve Rural Sonoma County. Various grape growers and wine makers attended and spoke up. A former planning commissioner, organic farmers, environmentalists, and a professional planner spoke.

“What we have in common is respect for rural life,” co-host Donald Williams welcomed the by-invitation-only crowd. “The reasons for this meeting include becoming acquainted with each other and hearing our stories. Another goal is to encourage and inspire each other.”

Don’t Let Wineries Pave Over AG Land

“Things have changed dramatically since I moved here in 1965, when we had diverse agriculture,” said Bob Dwyer, one of a dozen featured speakers. He was the Executive Director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Association, the Napa County Farm Bureau, and the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association.

“Now we have little here other than a wine grape mono-culture. A ten-mile stretch of the Silverado Trail has eighteen wineries. They hire a chef before a wine-maker. This has to stop. We cannot let them pave over more of our ag land. The event centers have nothing to do with agriculture,” added Dwyer.

Current Napa Farm Bureau President Norma Tofanelli–a fourth-generation farmer and grape grower–read from that group’s mission statement, which is “to preserve agricultural land and natural resources.”

“Napa County–the leader with the nation’s first agricultural preserve–faces fundamental questions on how to protect ag lands and resources,” Tofanelli said. “Planning Commissioner Matt Pope has asked ‘Do we want to maintain an agricultural economy that benefits from tourism or do we want to transfer into a tourist economy that capitalizes on agriculture?” according to Tofanelli.

“Ag-washing is when you say a winery with hospitality events is agriculture. It is not. We have an Agricultural Preserve here in Napa,” observed Geoff Ellsworth of St. Helena, which he said needs to be supported.

“Wineries as event centers are being put on ag lands in rural areas, rather than in municipalities. When they are put into towns or cities, they should still adhere to the codes of that municipality and address community and environmental impacts in order for balance to be maintained,” Ellsworth added.

“We need to have a state-wide movement,” declared Sonoma County’s Janus Matthes of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. “Rules need to be set for the wine industry, so that everyone knows what they can and cannot do. Neighbors report that real estate prices go down when wineries as event centers move in,” Matthes noted.

Napa Vision 2050 and Lake County Threats

“We need a valley-wide voice,” commented David Hallett of the Napa Vision 2050, a coalition of 15 groups, including the Sierra Club. He recommended that people “go find your commonality and get organized.”

“A big vintner wanted to put in a winery in the hills behind my back yard in a known water-deprived area,” explained Dan Mufson of Napa Vision 2050. “They would cut down 28,000 trees.”  He was able to rally neighbors to raise community awareness of this and then other projects.

“Lake County is in a different cycle of winery development,” said Julie Kreis of Lake County’s Hidden Valley Lake Watershed (HVL) group. They focus on new vineyards wanting to move in, as land and water become scarcer in Sonoma and Napa counties. Kreis owns eleven acres bordering a 6,000-person subdivision, which makes it the second largest population concentration in the small county of 63,860 people in 2013.

“The Wild Diamond Vineyard has an application to plant 108 acres of vines on a steep mountainside parcel with moderate to severe erosion and run-off that goes into Hidden Valley Lake,” noted Kreis.  “HVL Watershed is concerned about depletion of wells and spring recharge. It’s critical to address corporate vineyard development that clear cuts the land of trees, negatively impacts water resources, pollutes water and air, and destroys natural habitat,” added Kreis.

“We’ve felt isolated and lonely fighting Big Wine,” commented Greg Stratmann, who co-owns Stonehouse Cellars winery in Lake County. He represented the Old Long Valley Road community of some 50 households, “two of which were pumping air from their wells a week after a nearby winery started irrigating this year.”

Stratmann reported on a struggle with Shannon Ranches, which put in a large reservoir without a permit. “The county does not enforce its laws, so vineyards can do what they want and then pay minimal fines. Shannon waters its grapes beyond industry standards and then adds concentrates,” according to Stratmann.

“We are concerned with all the event centers at wineries in the Sonoma Valley,” reported Kathy Pons of Valley of the Moon Alliance.

“They are no longer merely ag., having become hospitality centers. I want true agriculture to survive, which is cultivating the soil.”

“In 2002 we challenged a giant resort. They had to do an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which we challenged in court,” Pons said. Though the court eventually denied the group’s lawsuit, they slowed down the project, which the worsened economic situation in 2008 stalled.

That resort, which includes a winery with events, was recently bought by a Chinese holding company for $41 million. Another Chinese corporation has also bought property in the Sonoma Valley. With the rise of its middle class, the huge Chinese market for California wines is expanding. Most of Big Wine on California’s North Coast is owned by outside investors.

“Chainsaw Wine” Signs and Bumper Stickers 

“We are science-based,” reported Chris Poehlmann of Friends of the Gualala River, which extends from Mendocino into Sonoma County. “We approach things through legislation, including dealing with general plans and zoning. We’ve been successful with legal challenges, forcing EIRs. Our major concern has been the conversion of forests into vineyards.”

With respect to the media, Poehlmann suggested, “Be creative. For example, make ‘chainsaw wine’ signs and bumper stickers.” They have been fighting an 18,000-acre Preservation Ranch project.

“Big Wine is a Big Problem,” reported Warren Watkins, who arrived directly from a celebration of the Russian River. Groups throughout the North Coast have been showing the acclaimed new documentary “The Russian River: All Rivers” to sell-out audiences. It includes substantial footage and interviews about the damage that wineries do to watersheds.

Watkins spoke for Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, which has helped mobilize hundreds of residents to attend various governmental meetings. He noted that wine tourism creates extra demands for water. “Healdsburg and Sonoma have been ordered by the state to cut their water use more than any other city in Sonoma County. These are the two biggest tourist towns in the County.”

“This is a regional issue,” commented Greenbelt Alliance’s Teri Shore. “Our groups must look at community separators, to preserve the open spaces and greenbelts between our cities. Right now I’m focused on renewing community separators policies in Sonoma. We need to examine the bigger picture and work together.”

Calistoga Meeting Ends, The Struggle continues

The six-hour gathering concluded with an evening session on issues such as a mission statement and the group’s name. Members of Preserve Rural Sonoma County were present. Its mission statement includes the following: “Our mission is to promote limits on the encroachment of large wine and spirits processing complexes/events centers and their negative impacts upon residential neighborhoods and inappropriate rural areas.”

Four Counties Network (FCN) was the tentative name agreed upon to identify the collaboration of these diverse groups in distinct counties. It is a working name that may change.  It signifies the desire to mobilize a mass movement into a united struggle to ensure the preservation of the rural nature of these neighboring North Coast California counties, which includes their historic agrarian cultures.

“Four County Network members have common concerns regarding impact,” noted Napa’s former winery executive Robert Dwyer. “We are united by out-of-control negative impacts upon our regional resources. We are not going away. Network member organizations plan to monitor, challenge, and participate in future land use policy decisions in the region.”

Since it takes about 30 gallons of water to produce one glass of wine, extensive water use by wineries as events centers was a major concern of the gathering. After reading a report on the meeting, geologist Jane Nielson, Ph.D., of the Sonoma County Water Coalition wrote the following in an email:

“The US Geological Survey’s 8-year study of groundwater under the Santa Rosa Plain showed an annual deficit of 3,300 acre-ft (just over a billion gallons) per year, due mostly to agricultural and rural residential pumping from wells, which the County has permitted with no limitation. The County permits more and more and more water extraction by new wineries, distilleries, and event centers by large wine-making concerns.”

“How many wineries and wine-based entertainment centers does one firm really need?” asked geologist Dr. Nielson.

Shepherd Bliss ( is a retired college teacher who has contributed to 24 books. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.