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
 IT'S A MARCH AFTERNOON, a Saturday, in the parking lot outside the Albertson's grocery store in the city of Napa. A collection of vans and cars pulls in, and out of one emerges a yellow-and-black bulldozer made of cardboard, placed over the electric wheelchair driven by Chris Malan's 22-year-old son, who suffered spinal injuries in an auto crash four years ago. He wears blue sunglasses and an eager grin. A young woman next to him wears a green sheath to which are attached artificial evergreen boughs, while another wears a black leotard and a hood of turkey feathers. They represent redwoods and spotted owls, and the bulldozer chases them down the pavement, the redwood swaying, the owl flapping. People stocking up for the weekend rubberneck this bit of street theater.

In December 1999, three months after the Sierra Club suits hit home, Malan had declared her candidacy for a seat on the county board of supervisors in the 2000 primary election. She was challenging an incumbent, Kathryn Winter, who had a decent environmental record and was already under siege by a pro-development candidate, Bill Dodd, backed by big wineries and wealthy independent vintners.

Malan's running for office passed through the ranks of Napa Valley's greens like a blast of anthrax. "Does she know what she's doing?" asked Volker Eisele, a grower and vintner and one of the graybeards of Napa's environmental politics. "Chris will split that vote. Kathryn could well lose, or be forced into a runoff with the Chamber of Commerce candidate, and who knows how that will turn out?"

Malan found herself deserted by former allies, including most members of the Sierra Club. The club publicly endorsed Winter, as did the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Grape Growers, and other agricultural organizations. Farmers for Napa Valley, meanwhile, endorsed the business candidate, Dodd. Malan's friends urged her to withdraw, but she refused. "Kathryn Winter is weak on hillside protection," she said. "Somebody has to take a stand."

In the primary election, held on March 7, 2000, Malan lost, and so did Winter. Dodd received a majority of votes, preempting the expected runoff between him and Winter. Environmentalists outside Malan's circle were furious, but Malan remained unrepentant. "I've got a solid base now for a grassroots movement," she said. "We'll stop development on the hillsides; we'll save the Napa River."

That remains to be seen. On April 25, everyone was forced to reconsider what Malan had accomplished when the Sierra Club suit against the county was resolved. The county officially recognized that CEQA applied to decisions regarding new vineyard development on slopes greater than five percent and agreed that all such projects be opened to public review. A study was to be undertaken to accurately measure the total impact of development on the Napa River, information that would factor into future permits to log or plant.

Meanwhile, Pahlmeyer, Chateau Potelle, and The Best Cellar/Vineyard Properties West had already settled out of court on March 27. Each of the defendants agreed to make modifications to their vineyard projects, pay all legal costs, and contribute an additional $10,000 apiece to pay for environmental impact studies. John Stephens, the chair of the Sierra Club's Napa Group, a rail-thin, lifelong activist, wrote an open letter, published in two newspapers, extolling the settlement: "Very often, those who are in the midst of historic events fail to see the significance of their individual roles...We have all won in this joint settlement."


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