Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Picking A Side In the Napa Winery Fight

No it's not Monday when I normally post. I got inspired midweek from Tom Wark who wrote a piece yesterday in his Fermentation Daily Wine Blog entitled Critics of the Napa Valley Wine Industry are Losing Badly. It's a passionate opinion piece of the goings-on in Napa County politics which are overheated with rhetoric. (Rhetoric | rhet·o·ric \ˈre-tə-rik\: language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable.)

      Anti-Wine or Anti-Change?

If you live and work in Napa County as I do, you see endless reports in the local papers of various people and organizations wanting to have their grapes and eat them too: meaning they love the money tourism brings to their valley to pay for services, they love looking at vines, they love the economic vitality of a growth business, and they particularly love their home values rising. But they also don't want the existing wine industry to expand, nor do they want new wineries or tourists. 

The anti-winery discussion in the North Coast has thus far included a cartoon-like mix of NIMBYs, some growers and anti-change groups, each fanning the flames of public debate but for a variety of different end goals. These kinds of coalitions always end up deteriorating or creating the proverbial camel that was the horse designed by a committee. It's the nature of a coalition without a shared vision.

To understand why growers would want to publicly side with groups who are raising the cost of vineyard development and who are also interested in stopping vineyard development entirely would take a month to explain, but that is what's happening. 

Here are some linked examples of the debate. Click on the articles and check out comments in the articles at the bottom They are like watching a B rated reality TV series with a train wreck for a backdrop:

      Fact from Fiction

In August of this year, Sonoma State University shed a little light on the subject when they ran their own survey of locals to get a view on just how the community really felt about the wine business. That work was picked up in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and published in a piece titled: Sonoma State survey finds wide support for North Coast wine industry.

I was actually a little surprised by the results of the survey which can be seen in the above chart. It found that 88% of locals felt the Wine Business had a positive impact on the quality of life in their county. Wait! I thought John Q Public had the opposite view? Apparently not but wait, there's more:
  • 94% said the wine industry contributes positively to the beauty and culture of wine regions.
  • 78% feel the wine industry gives back to their communities
  • 83% felt the wine industry created a positive image for their community while only 2% felt the opposite.

The chart that I found the most interesting was this one to the right, that shows the overwhelming majority of people in the Napa/Sonoma region felt the Wine Business both contributed positively to the rural character, and was considered part of the agricultural heritage of the region. That's not really the message that is being portrayed.

      Rhetoric from Reality

As I mentioned straight off, the narrative that is being put forth by the naysayers with all the rhetoric surrounding the wine business would lead one to believe the chart from SSU might look flipped on it's head, but locals said otherwise. 

What about the wine business itself? Does the industry buy what is being put forth? Turns out, I have a chart for that too:

We asked wineries to rate how they felt their communities felt about them, rating their beliefs on a scale from being vocally opposed on one end, up to being publicly supported on the other. 

To the left is that chart which is part of the Annual Wine Conditions Survey (..... the survey is still open until Thursday night for late wineries who haven't participated yet [survey link].)  

As of this moment 78% said they felt they were welcomed in their communities. These results are amazingly close to the results found in the Sonoma State University survey.

So back to Tom Warks post from the other day, "Critics of the Napa Valley Wine Industry are Losing Badly" ..... I would have to conclude locals and the wine business are aligned in their views and yes, the anti-winery messaging isn't really impacting beliefs in their communities as many might suppose.

      Right from Wrong

Does that prove there is nothing for wineries and vineyards to do? Hardly. 

I've had discussions with County Officials to hear their perspectives on the matter and at least some feel caught in a squeeze without much vocal support from the wine or grower side of the industry. The result of inaction is demonstrated in Napa and Sonoma County which are almost in a defacto freeze trying to get requested changes to permits. Virtually no new wineries are getting approved. 

      Vineyards or Hospitals

One of the consequences of the stalled permit process strangely is that contractors who have made a living on retrofitting and building new wineries are telling me the only building they have on their schedules for 2016 are gigantic luxury homes on the hillsides. That's the real oddity in this debate: 

While you can stop a vineyard from being built by making it too expensive with EIRs and remediation, Constitutionally you can't stop a property owner from building a home on a legal parcel. So .... while we dabate whether a new winery should have 40 or 60 visitors a week, hospital sized homes are popping up left and right in the Napa and Sonoma hillsides like a chocolate chip cookie. But at least there are no vineyards being put in.

      A Seat or a Side

So which side are you on? I am taking a seat on the side that protects the Valleys from wanton growth, deforestation of the hillsides, unfettered growth in new wineries, ruination of streams and habitat, and the destruction of the nature and character of the regions in which we live. We don't need every winery approved without planning for infrastructure. Surprised with that? Why be surprised? Shouldn't we all want to protect the resource that allows us to produce and sell our product?

That said, I am also on the side that wants to get clear information about the issues instead of spewing rhetoric spawning popular myths. Take for instance traffic problems ( .... its job growth more than tourism by the way). Once the reason is researched and properly supported with facts, I'll side with people to develop solutions to improve traffic flow. Two ideas: opening and closing tasting rooms at different times and incenting non-hospitality workers to work in towns instead of commuting to agricultural areas. Those ideas don't come out if the problem is defined simply as winery growth.

That’s not where we are though. We continue to allow false branding of the problems. This is going to cost us all in the final analysis without officials willing to ask tough and sensible questions, and winery owners willing to more consistently add their reasoned voice to the public dialogue.

## Annual Wine Survey ... the place where we get some of our industry information like the above is and Annual Wine Condition Survey. That closes Thursday night. About 500 have responded so far but if your winery hasn't yet participated, please do so. It will take about 12 minutes. 


      What Side are You On?

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  1. Understanding the issue? Huh? Why, whatever for?

    I've listened to the deliberations of the APAC and to those commenting during public discussion. The number of unsubstantiated claims and claims of greater this or greater that with no quantification by critics was constant.

    But what the Napa Board of Supervisors really needs to carefully look at are the surveys you posted. That's data...data that doesn't shout, but carefully makes a succinct point about just what the public does think about the wine industry.

    1. Thanks for comments Tom. Good information and research is everyone's friend if we really want to solve problems. No information is a vacuum that only allows the loudest voice to be heard.

    2. I just look forward to January -March when they choke us out with their 'ag burns'. It's so nice to go outside, hoping to breathe in fresh winter air- but then to have your eyes burning, throat choking and wondering if there has been a nearby wildfire every week for months. Oh joy.

    3. Maggie - Thank you for your comments.

      Since Napa is unquestionably an Ag area, there will be impacts from agriculture.... wind machines, lights at harvest, and on occasion there are ag burns. That's the cost of living in an Ag Area.

      Every region has other property owner with property rights that impinge on others. Where I grew up, we had a tract of farm land sold to a developer who turned our backyard into RV storage. Living in Sacramento, we had rice burns in the fall. Living in Morgan Hill we had garlic processors and mushroom growers that put off unpleasant smells.

      There are always pros and cons living anywhere. I'll take the small inconveniences of living here and deal with them.

  2. I have lived both inside and outside of Napa. At one point I lived in Calistoga and commuted to the city for a job and then after layoff commuted down valley to a winery job. Traffic was unbelievable. I would have to start out at least an hour earlier than anyone could imagine to get to where I needed to go....and this was various times, like 4am (there are a lot of workers on the road in Napa at 4am) and then at about 10 am (even more people on the roads at that hour).

    Then there is my most recent visit to the valley (I now live in Sacramento). I took my mother and nephews to lunch in Rutherford and then tried to get to a winery in Calistoga for a tour. I had given 30 minutes to get to the winery.....I was actually late by 30 minutes. Now it takes an hour to get up valley? Yes there was road construction, but really, this must be done in July?
    I love the Napa Valley, but a lot of the wineries that are being built now at just "me toos".....places I won't visit because I know the wines will not be that great.

    1. Creatures - Thanks for logging in and for the thoughts. Traffic is clearly worse than it was. I moved to St Helena in 1998 and moved to Napa in 2011. I've seen the changes.

      The issue as I see it is wineries are approved, visitation agreed to but there is insufficient thought given to impact on traveled roads from employees. But employment is a good thing no?

      Guess what .... it's the same everywhere else in the Bay Area but much worse. In Silicon Valley in bust periods it's easy to commute. Not today. Roads and traffic are terrible in the Bay Region and perhaps about as good as it gets in Napa County.

      That's more of a statement that an excuse. At least there is road construction taking place now and while inconvenient, it was a long time coming. Then again - I don't think traffic is all about building more and wider roads. Commuter rail (under consideration), bike (vine trail) and planned development to accommodate tourists, locals, and employees will all help.

  3. Well done Rob. As usual. And Tom Wark's piece the other day...outstanding. The vitriol against the wine industry that has reared it's head in the last few years...confounding to say the least.

  4. The while traffic thing spins my head. Wasn't there a study done last year from tracking smartphones that showed that 80 some percent of the traffic during the worst congestion was local and wineries only accounted for 12 percent of it (if I'm remembering correctly)?

    1. Unknown 11:00 - there was a traffic study and the article is linked above. The conclusion was the traffic patterns during the week were more the result of employees versus tourists. That doesn't change the fact that there is traffic but popularizing that fact will help in getting solutions that might actually impact the traffic problem.

  5. The issue of the survival of the Napa Valley? I suspect few care and fewer still have the skills to arouse a slumbering public. But, change has been hard on the valley and the pressure to develop what remains is enormous. What are we trying to preserve? At some point there comes a moment when frontier ends and efforts to conserve and preserve take charge. To care for the countryside and waterways we will have to embark upon a long enlightened journey together. It is going to require innovation. Satelite parking lots, shuttles, FastPass fees for driving into the heart of the valley on congested days. It is revising water policy. There are a thousand little ways we can plan to hand over this treasure to the future if only we dream and dare to invoke the best in our citizens. A brighter futurre is in every stakeholders interest.

    1. Dana Smith - thanks for logging in with a name. I hate calling people Anonymous.

      From my perspective, I recognize that change is inevitable. Property ownership and owners rights guarantee that. So we can't stop change. We can however shape it.

      The Napa Valley should be held out as a shining example of preservation in a region that has paved over virtually all of the land available for farming. That said, economics also have played a role in preservation.

      As much as people on the anti-winery side want to criticize "rich absentee winery owners and event center wineries" (yes ... that would be an example of rhetoric)... anyway ... as much as people want to throw stones at those rich people who have built their dreams in Napa, it is also those same people who have donated countless thousands of acres to the Land Trust, millions of dollars to farm worker housing and Valley medical needs, and because the wine is so valuable, the economics of development have helped in preserving and creating the Valley. We might not get to wall it off, but we get to look at well designed architecture, vineyards and open space, and blue skies because the highest and best use in this case is to use the region to grow grapes and make wine.

      Of course those wineries have changed the landscape and I'm not arguing for approval of all wineries. I'm merely pointing out it's been the combined work of the winery owners, the Land Trust, the NVA, NVGG, the public who approved the Ag Ordinance and countless others who have dedicated time to working on keeping this place beautiful.

      The valley will change but I hope we do it in a way that allows for salmon and steelhead runs again, moderated traffic, clean views of the hillsides and trees absent obvious large dwellings. I believe we can continue what was started in the 60's if we start reading from the same page when it comes to the facts in discussion.

  6. Rob,

    For readers of your blog who reside outside of Napa Valley, please compose an addendum to this mid-week piece about local public transit . . . as the "wine country" sounds like a single-occupant car culture region.

    If a vineyard or winery employee (not residing at or near a property) wished to commute to work, what are her/his options?

    North/south bus routes? West/east bus routes? Frequency of departures? One-way transit time? Relative expense of one-way and daily fares?

    Throw in any discussion about the prospect of commuter and tourist light rail in the Valley?

    Urban and suburban readers would benefit from some context here about this unique agrarian society.

    ~~ Bob

    1. Bob
      I normally don't write on Napa alone but this discussion has wider reaching impacts in Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Oregon, and even Fresno. The debate is being shaped around false assumptions and I hope the sides in the discussion focus more on the facts .... spend the time digging them out before getting to rule making which is what is happening here and the result will be only that we have more rules and more traffic.

  7. excellent article Rob. I've wondered this and it's enlightening to note the vast majority of residents and wine business employees feel the same: the wine industry is a good thing, it's growing and creates a better quality of life for tourists and residents alike.

    1. Thanks for the note Janet. There is no question the naysayers are in the minority when it comes to local politics, and in fact the vast majority of the Counties of Napa and Sonoma view wineries as additive to the regions ag heritage and overall positive quality of life. But in a democracy, minority voices should be heard and considered in a debate;

      From my perspective, I believe there is a lot of common ground that gets lost in the distorted and unsubstantiated claims regarding the impacts of tourism and events. My hope is the real issues are quantified so proper solutions and mitigations are developed. Without getting real information, there will be no real solutions.


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