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
TO FILE THE LAWSUITS, Malan first appealed to the Sierra Club's Napa Group, a subgroup of the club's Redwood Chapter. In June, Malan, and the Sierra Club's attorney in this case, Tom Lippe, explained the grounds for the suit to the club's executive committee. CEQA, they stressed, requires public comment on any project with an environmental impact if the project also involves decisions made by a government agency—such as a county board of supervisors. None of Napa's hillside vineyards' erosion control plans, they pointed out, had received a public hearing. The Napa Group approved the suit, so the decision to proceed went before the predominantly Sonoma-based executive committee of the Redwood Chapter.

As it happened, Sonoma County was in the midst of its own environmental war over vineyards, with activists there demonstrating against vineyard "monoculture" and branding wineries "alcohol factories"—a populist furor that has become known in Napa as "Sonoma Syndrome." Worried that Sonoma's board of supervisors would be frightened by the Napa lawsuit into passing a less restrictive ordinance not subject to CEQA (so as to avoid a similar lawsuit), the Redwood Chapter stalled Malan's plan. (They were right to worry; the Sonoma County supervisors later did pass an ordinance not subject to CEQA.)

Undeterred, Malan went over the heads of the Redwood Chapter to the Sierra Club's national board, in San Francisco. There the proposed legal action, like a similar suit filed by the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club, excited more debate before finally getting approved. (In the Hawaii action, the Sierra Club sued the Hawaii Tourism Authority, on January 11, 2000, to block its plan to spend $114 million on a three-year campaign to promote tourism before the state completed an environmental study of the effects of more visitors. At press time, the case was still before the Hawaii Supreme Court, and a settlement did not seem likely. If the Sierra Club wins, tourism officials around the country fear, almost anyone could use the same tactic to halt tourism projects or development lacking comprehensive environmental reviews—just as Malan has done in Napa.)

In the same suit filed against Napa County, on September 19, 1999, the Sierra Club took the extraordinary step of naming Pahlmeyer et al. as defendants, thus fingering specific alleged villains—or creating martyrs, depending upon one's point of view. Certainly the members of the Watershed Task Force and the Napa County Planning Department realized that Malan and the Sierra Club had scored a gotcha. Stu Smith felt particularly aggrieved and accused Malan of sabotaging the task force, by forcing the county to defend itself at considerable expense. Pahlmeyer effected some damage control, appearing before vintner's groups and making apologetic remarks. The daily, pro-development Napa Valley Register denounced the suit, and a congeries of fault lines reappeared in the county's political bedrock. Malan, for her part, was just getting started.


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