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Can Locals in Napa Stave Off a Troublesome Mega-Vineyard?

In California wine country, environmentalists and vintners have kept an uneasy peace. Corporate overreach and damage to the environment are threatening to fracture it.
The Oat Hill Mine Trail in Napa Valley, California.

The Oat Hill Mine Trail in Napa Valley, California.

Residents of Napa County are losing patience with the wine industry. At the heart of their frustration is Walt Ranch, a proposed 200-acre mega-vineyard that, if it goes ahead, will remove thousands of trees from the steep slopes of the valley. But this latest dispute is also part of a more deeply rooted anger over the corporate powers that have come to dominate this Californian Eden.

Plans for the giant development first materialized in 2006, but communities in the area became really concerned about the specter of Walt Ranch beginning in 2012, when Napa County announced that it would analyze the environmental impacts of the proposal. While residents of Napa Valley are familiar with fields given over to the wine industry, many expressed concern about a development of this size. The Walt Ranch vineyard would extend up the hills of the valley, rather than across its fertile floor, leading to concerns over water supply and threats to biodiversity amid ongoing climate change.

"There's been nothing that has galvanized the people of Napa like this," says Nancy Tamarisk, chair of the Sierra Club's chapter for Northern California. "I think the community is very concerned."

Napa Valley is famous for its vineyards. The area's first commercial winery was established by Charles Krug in 1861 and flourished for a while until destructive root louse, and then Prohibition, stopped it in its tracks. The industry once again took flight after a blind tasting in Paris in 1976, when judges gave top honors to two Californian wines. Hundreds of wineries subsequently sprang up on the valley floor.

The industry hasn't always been in conflict with Napa's environmentalists. In 1968, vintners and local officials worked together to establish the Napa Agricultural Preserve, designed to protect the area's rural character by prohibiting urban development. More than 30,000 acres currently rest under this protection. As a result, instead of becoming an extension of Silicon Valley, Napa remains home to field after field of grapes.

Yet with the valley's fertile floor now fully planted, developers have begun eyeing the rugged surrounding hills as the next frontier for the wine industry.

"We haven't paved over our valley: It's farming, it's rural, it's beautiful," Tamarisk says. "We're not in the business of demonizing the wine industry. In many ways, they've done a great job of respecting environmental regulations. But it's gone far enough."

The valley's steep and forested hillsides are a tricky prospect for hopeful vintners. Various species of trees have taken root in these slopes, including canyon live oak and black oak, and are home to creatures including elderberry longhorn beetles, California red-legged frogs, and mountain lions. These hotspots of biodiversity are also vital to the region's water supplies, and the trees help prevent soil erosion and sedimentation.

Walt Ranch has proven the final straw for many residents concerned about the future of the valley. The 2,300-acre property sits atop Atlas Peak, where the volcanic soils are particularly suited to vines. It is owned by Craig and Kathryn Hall, a couple from Texas who intend to grow Bordeaux varietals across 209 acres of land. (Kathryn Hall is also the former United States ambassador to Austria.)

Other vineyard extensions have faced some muted opposition in the past, but Walt Ranch has elicited a deeper outrage. The development is "really egregious in its scale and size and location," says Aruna Prabhala, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Many residents say they saw the county's drafted environmental impact report as incomplete and unsatisfactory. The final assessment did little to abate their worries, so, in 2017, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the county. Two other organizations, the Circle Oaks Water District and Living Rivers Council, have filed parallel litigation.

Opponents to the project are particularly concerned about the logging required to clear space for the vineyard. The developers say that around 14,000 mature trees will be removed, contributing to climate change by reducing carbon sequestration on the site. These trunks will need to be transported from the area, which plaintiffs fear will bring more trucks into the neighborhood, generating still more greenhouse gases.

Nor are they convinced that the Halls are making all feasible efforts to mitigate these emissions, as required under California's Environmental Quality Act. The developers say that emissions will be partially balanced by protecting and preserving the remaining trees on the site. Their opponents say that no one wants to remove these trees anyway.

"There's a very limited area of the site that can actually be used to grow vineyards," Prabhala says. "There's a strong sense that those trees were never in danger of being cut down."

The lawsuit also criticizes the county's analysis of the threats to the rare animals on the property. Particular condemnation was reserved for "experts" at the consultancy firm that undertook frog surveys, Analytical Environmental Services, who couldn't distinguish between tadpoles and sub-adult frogs, according to the brief submitted by the Sierra Club and the CBD. The brief further claimed that AES had failed to provide an accurate baseline of the California red-legged frog, as the consultants performed their survey outside of breeding season, when the amphibian was unlikely to be spotted anyway.

One of the difficulties, Tamarisk says, has been finding local experts to testify against the development. "All the experts, of course, also work for the wine industry, and they're afraid to be blackballed. You need to reach further and further afield to find someone who's not intimidated so they'll be willing to speak for you on the record," she says.

Despite these objections, the Napa County Superior Court ruled in the county's favor this March. The Sierra Club and the CBD filed an appeal in early May. (Walt Ranch did not respond to a request for comment.)

A broader movement in Napa Valley is trying to protect the hillsides from the control of the wine industry. On June 5th, voters in Napa County will decide whether to accept a ballot initiative known as Measure C, which would protect the mountainous areas that ensure the clean and plentiful supply of water to farms and citizens in the valley.

The Measure C plan would create buffer zones along streams and wetlands where trees must remain intact, limit the amount of oak woodland that can be removed from watershed areas, and require industry to plant more trees than is currently required to replace the ones they remove.

The measure was initially a compromise between two local environmentalists, Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, and the Napa Valley Vintners, a wine trade group that exerts considerable political force in the valley. Yet after winemakers accused Measure C of being anti-agriculture, the lobby disavowed the proposal. They have been joined in their “No” campaign by other groups representing the valley's vintners.

That's an unfair characterization of the initiative, Hackett says. A retired pilot who has lived in Napa since the 1970s, he's been trying to pass a measure to regulate the industry since 2015.

"If you cut down too many trees in the Agricultural Watershed, there won't be enough supply for irrigation for the Agricultural Preserve. We are fighting for a sustainable agricultural community, and against people with short-sighted interests," he says. "It's an environmental project, but it's turned into a political one because there seems to be a lack of democratic process here in Napa County. If the rich and powerful control the government, then the citizens are being ignored, and that's what's happening here."

It has been a David and Goliath fight, Hackett claims, as the wine industry's well-funded and well-connected campaign has sought to obfuscate the message of Measure C's proponents. But these environmentalists intend to make their case to voters based on the impacts of climate change in the county's own backyard. As last year's wildfires raised concerns over the destruction of woodland, and severe drought has put the spotlight on California's water supply, the call for environmental protections may well echo through the valley louder than ever.

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.