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Will Napa Valley Vote to Slow Vineyard Development?

What’s the one thing on people’s minds in Napa County? Measure C.

The Measure C, or as it’s formally called, Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, is an initiative that aims to curb vineyard development in order to preserve streams and oak trees on the hillsides that border the Napa Valley to the east and west. The ballot will take place on June 5.

The measure, co-authored by local activists Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, claims that there’s danger if more trees are lost due to vineyard development, and watersheds are threatened by contamination from farming.

Most people want to protect trees or water, especially when their livelihood and quality of life depends on it, but there are also those who stand to prosper if new vineyards become challenging to develop. This is the dilemma.

The Numbers

The 2017 Napa County Crop Report said Napa County wine-grape values rose more than 2.9 %. This pushed the value of agriculture to $757.1 million in a year when 7% of the grape-crush volume was lost due to record rainfall, extreme heat and the October wildfires.

Nearly 34,000 acres of red wine grapes are grown in the county, alongside 10,000 acres of whites. Wine grapes make up 99.2% of the overall agriculture.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s calling card, last year averaged $7,498 a ton, which was 10% higher than in 2016.

In 2017, Merlot fetched $3,390 a ton, while Chardonnay commanded $2,811 for the same amount, and Pinot Noir asked for $2,798.

The county spans some 500,000 acres, with 90% designated as agriculture, watershed and open space. Wine grape production is estimated to occupy 10% of that land.

Opponents of Measure C

Opponents fear the wine industry will be threatened if Measure C passes, and instead of an agrarian ideal, where land is left to nature, sites no longer viable as vineyards will become housing developments.

“If it passes, it would hurt small producers like myself, landlock Napa Valley, create more housing, Costcos, Walmarts [and] parking lots instead of vineyards, and have less vineyards [to] act as firebreaks if there’s another fire,” says Ralph Hertelendy, founder and vintner of Hertelendy Vineyards.

Small producers are concerned that if vineyard development is curbed, grape prices will rise substantially, and they are already sky-high.

In 2015, Hertelendy bought Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from a site between Harlan and Bond.

“As soon as someone heard I was there, they bought me out for three times what I paid for [the grapes]—making it a one-off,” he adds. “If Measure C passes, it’s just going to make this cycle even more vicious, and the dog-eat-dog cycle could prove to get very ugly. I’d hate to see small producers like myself go out of business and this is a big deal.”

Opponents of Measure C also argue the initiative is confusing and anti-agricultural, lacking in scientific evidence that oak woodlands and watersheds need immediate protection.

“It also directly contradicts the intent of the Ag Preserve and longstanding view that agriculture is, and should be, the highest and best use of Ag Watershed-zoned lands,” Jeri Hansen-Gill, CEO of Sustainable Napa County and a member of the Napa County Planning Commission, wrote in an op-ed to Wine Industry Network. She was referencing the 1968 Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.

The Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Winegrowers of Napa County are also opposed, as are many vintners, including Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone on Spring Mountain. Smith has amassed “facts, articles and science…” on the Stop Measure C website.

The initiative would allow no more than 795 acres of oak trees to be removed in agricultural watershed-zoned land. After that, cutting permits would be required.

Supporters of Measure C

There are vintners and growers in favor, including Randy Dunn, founder of Dunn Vineyards on Howell Mountain. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We’ve got too much vineyard development.”

Dunn also worries about the sulfur from vineyards getting into streams and the loss of wildlife habitat.

Also in favor of Measure C are Spottswood‘s Beth Novak Milliken, grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’s Warren Winiarski, and a tireless advocate of the Ag Preserve.

An April 26 letter to the Wine Industry Advisor noted their “enthusiastic” support, stating, “we feel a keen responsibility to protect this way of life for future generations.”

They said that the lot sizes (40–160 acres) established in the Ag Watershed proves that “claims of extensive housing development on the hillsides that surround the valley under this initiative are unfounded.”

On a recent KQED Forum radio broadcast, Dunn said, “Land is precious and to those that don’t have their vineyard in the valley, I’m sorry you didn’t get here early…we need to preserve what we have.”

Napa voters will have to decide if agriculture is the best and highest use of land in Napa County? Or does agriculture need to be curbed? The long-term consequences will be felt by all.