The Bonfire of the Wineries

IPO sluts, "lifestyle" vintners, and eco-radicals bearing lawsuits. Eroding hillsides, glassy-winged sharpshooters, and an imperiled river with dying steelhead. Napa Valley has them all, and each lends its own bouquet of New Economy hilarity, nose-out-of-joint agrarian rage, and NIMBY intolerance to wine country's unique, full-bodied blend of environmental poli

Sep 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
"THE SIERRA CLUB and Malan/Mennen didn't win, they lost! And nobody knows it!"

Or so claims Jayson Pahlmeyer, over lunch in Mustards Grill, his favorite restaurant in the valley. He is among the owner's favorite lunchtime customers, a recognized bon vivant who does not stint on comestibles; on the table rest not only a powerful Pahlmeyer merlot but also a buttery Pahlmeyer chardonnay, like the one featured in Disclosure, and a bottle of pinot noir from another winery. People drop by to say hello. They get a splash of Pahlmeyer's best and a rap from the vintner.

"The Sierra Club cost the taxpayers of Napa County a lot of money," says Pahlmeyer. "They got no real concessions from us." He points out that the modifications he agreed to apply to less than three acres of vineyard. He agreed to pay his $10,000 with the development rights to 20 acres of his land, contributing it to the Napa Valley Land Trust. "It was all a scheme to raise money for mercenary lawyers and radical environmentalists. Environmental extortion, that's what it was!"

Like others in Napa County, Pahlmeyer thinks the lawsuits will backfire, encouraging local authorities to pass fewer and toothless regulations to avoid environmental reviews and legal bills. Of course, if that happens, individuals like Pahlmeyer may become even more of a target, with lawyers chasing them with state and federal regulations instead of local ones. In Napa, certainly, the war's far from over. The Watershed Task Force was scheduled to meet for the last time in July. Now the county must decide what to do with its controversial recommendations, which call for a more extensive and restrictive hillside ordinance. Attorneys supported by Peter Mennen, meanwhile, have been looking into new lawsuits on various fronts: alleging violations of the public trust, water allotments, the Clean Water Act, and even the Endangered Species Act by individuals, county, and state agencies.

Finally the seared ahi arrives.

"I settled the suit because I wanted to get on with my life," says a defiant Pahlmeyer. "My vineyard's more or less in now. I'm set. I'm telling you, I'm gonna make a wine that drops you to your knees."

James Conaway is the author of several books including Napa: The Story of an American Eden, The Kingdom in the Country, and Memphis Afternoons, a memoir. He lives on the Rappahannock River in Virginia.


More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!