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
STUART SMITH, a small-winery owner (Smith-Madrone Vineyard), looks as if he belongs on the granola side of the argument. His iron-gray beard has biblical heft, and, seeing him for the first time, you might even suspect he, too, thanks the Lord above for Chris Malan. But Smith, one of the vinous pioneers in these hills, saw how the agricultural preserve kept the Napa Valley from becoming another tract-house bedroom community, and he maintains that by hectoring the wineries and limiting their growth, Malan, Mennen, and their allies "are trying to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

From high on Spring Mountain, Smith surveys vineyards on the west side of the valley, his eyes shaded by the brim of a beat-up fedora, his feet sheathed in L.L. Bean boots that have seen too many rainy seasons. Smith, 52, a tall man with thick arms and wrists, grew up in Southern California, where he was captain of his high school football team in Santa Monica. He arrived in the valley in 1971 and planted his first vineyard the next year. He wants to expand it, but the land he wanted to develop is steep and he recently had trouble getting a permit from the county after the Pahlmeyer contretemps.

"Down there is where I'm putting in cabernet," he says, punching a finger in the direction of the forest below. "We're talking about less than three acres, and for a long time I couldn't get permission to plant them. I was being denied the use of my land."

Back in August 1998, already irritated by unelected third parties telling him what he could and couldn't do, Smith cofounded the Farmers for Napa Valley, a loosely affiliated group of property-rights advocates. It's something of a shadow organization, with letterhead and a phone list, but no calendared meetings and plenty of room for competing agendas. For Smith, one of the richer ironies of the battle between the environmentalists and wine makers is that he's ended up defending the practices of people he can't stand: some of the big wine makers, other, less neighborly small vintners, and even some monied dotcom refugees.

Smith sees what's happening in Napa as a sign of the times. "I think it has something to do with the transfer from an agrarian society and the remnants of the Industrial Revolution to whatever comes next," he says. "Meanwhile people living in cities have little control over their lives and want to control something, and here that something is the hillsides. I see the pieces of the puzzle, but I can't quite put them all together."

What he can envision—and what keeps the Farmers for Napa Valley busy—is a future where radical environmentalists dictate his land use. This he can't abide. Chief among his and his allies' fears are a legal end to planting on hillsides, "radical setbacks" (no clearing or planting within 150 feet of streams), and enforced restoration (the returning of some vineyard land to wildlife habitat). These measures may sound less than frightful, but they bring tectonic wobbles to a place where an acre of good land fetches more than $100,000 and costs another $35,000 to $50,000 to plant.

Not that vintners want for powerful allies. Wine pumped $33 billion into California's economy last year, and Napa Valley accounted for almost $4 billion of that. Some $250 million went out through paychecks to more than 8,000 local employees. Even so, the romance and natural qualities of wine are central to Napa's success, and lawsuits from environmentalists aren't the kind of publicity any wine maker wants.


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