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
CHRIS MALAN'S SMILE belies a single-mindedness that dismays both her adversaries and even some of her natural allies. She's the sort who bugs the blondes, and is alternately described as a dedicated advocate for nature, a political opportunist, and a wine-dissing Druid. The one point of agreement is that she's tenacious.

Malan, 48, stands in her driveway off Atlas Peak Road, pointing toward Pahlmeyer's embattled acres on the ridge--a Post-it on the dark rump of chaparral. From here, she can see 50 or so of his 220 acres in Napa. (He owns vineyards in Sonoma County, too.) When Pahlmeyer began clearing the chaparral for his latest plot last summer, Malan began videotaping.

"Work was supposed to stop at the beginning of September, but didn't," she says. "I gave them three days and then called the sheriff." Pahlmeyer claims to have had verbal permission from the county to finish work on the new vineyard, but the county shut him down after Malan's call because the rainy season had officially begun. Heavy rains can cause serious erosion, especially of unfinished vineyards on a grade.

Malan, who grew up in Santa Rosa and moved to Napa in 1978, works as a crisis counselor for the county. She's been active in Napa's environmental politics for over a decade, and may well attend more public hearings in Napa than anyone not paid to do so. In 1993, she was a founder of the Friends of the Napa River, and, in 1995, Get a Grip on Growth. She leads the Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides and sits on the board of the Napa Group of the Sierra Club. She also served as a member of the mercurial Napa River Watershed Task Force.

Composed of vineyard managers, activists, winery reps, and concerned citizens, the Watershed Task Force, which held its first meeting in January 1999, was appointed by the five-member Napa County board of supervisors as a way to encourage civic participation, strengthen the existing hillside development ordinance (a measure passed in 1991 to reduce erosion and prevent sedimentation in the Napa River), and persuade vintners and other farmers to self-regulate.

Though amicable, the task force struggled from the outset. Unsurprisingly, the members had their own agendas. The environmentalists wanted real changes--an end to logging (both to clear space for vineyards and for timber), functional wildlife corridors, big setbacks from the river and streams. The vineyard managers wanted a law that would not later be challenged in court. And while everyone claimed to want a cleaner river, few could agree on how to achieve it.

When Malan questioned the county's numbers and assumptions about soils and aquatic life, allies found her principled to a fault, and the opposition found her unreasonable. Consensus was the object, but as one member put it, "Consensus means you either agree or you block your opponent." When the task force's monthly meetings were suspended for the summer in May, Malan claimed the task force, for all its good intentions, had been a charade.

"The county was taking their jolly sweet time," she says. "They were letting the vintners do what they wanted to do. The county was dancing to the beat of their drum, so they could get their summer planting done. We were trying to keep a whole new development cycle from starting." Frustrated, Malan started talking to the Sierra Club about legal action to address what the task force had not. And to pay the attorney's fees, she called on Peter Mennen.


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