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

James Conaway

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THE WHITE ’64 CADILLAC convertible takes up most of Atlas Peak Road on its corkscrew passage through steeply tilted land above Napa Valley, gliding past hillside property strewn with volcanic rocks and views to kill for, as they say in the real estate flyers.

The pilot of this chromed retro land-launch is a big, rangy guy in Levi’s and a baseball cap on which is embroidered his last name—Pahlmeyer—a name that may ring a bell with those who saw the Michael Douglas&150;Demi Moore picture Disclosure. The movie’s plot centers on a seduction attempted with a bottle of chardonnay—Jayson Pahlmeyer’s chardonnay. “I could have sold 400,000 cases as a result of that movie,” Pahlmeyer says, turning into his narrow driveway. “The mail was overwhelming. It came in bags.”

Movie fame carries only so much weight in this tight little valley north of San Francisco Bay, a place inured to the presence of Francis Ford Coppola and unimpressed by news of Robert Redford’s leasing a house and rumors about Madonna’s shopping around. But producing good, exclusive wine, now that’s important. Pahlmeyer makes only 6,000 cases of wine a year, a minuscule output by industry standards. Once you get on his mailing list, you can still wait three years for the privilege of buying a case at about $75 per bottle.

The greeting on his answering machine teasingly says, “Please leave a message while I uncork a powerful Pahlmeyer merlot.” Which is just what he does—it’s a ’97—once we enter the angular steel-and-glass house where he lives with his wife, Paige. He sprawls on the couch in the raised living room, overlooking an interior he describes as “high-tech Italian industrial.” Remodeled in 1988 by San Francisco architect Michael Guthrie, the house features a steel spiral staircase and a glass-paned wall that rises electronically like a garage door to allow the dining table to be rolled out to the pool. The far edge of the patio opens out into the viewshed: broad green valley, salty estuary where the ailing (according to the EPA) Napa River flows into San Pablo Bay. The spires of San Francisco are lost in a bank of fog to the south, and beyond, unseen but not unfelt, lies Silicon Valley.

Pahlmeyer, 55, is no endowed computer geek, but there are plenty of those in the hills—the latest grape-loving arrivistes in a long line of hopeful vintners who began showing up in droves back in the 1960s. Pahlmeyer came in 1985, when new faces tended to be real estate developers rather than high-tech CEOs, and today he has what the techies all want: an interesting house, a vineyard of his own, and a wine with his name on it that few can afford. Formerly a lawyer, Pahlmeyer had a vision—”making a wine that drops you to your knees”—and pluck. He helped smuggle clones of French vines into this country through Canada, hired good people, and was soon producing several varieties of dense, luscious wines, attracting favorable reviews, and, consequently, a call from the producers of Disclosure.

And yet if Pahlmeyer’s own story were to be made into a movie today, it would not be about an attorney trading torts for a farm and creating a dazzling vintage. Instead, the pitch would go something like this: High-profile vintner tells cowboy to deliver new rocket-juice pronto, and succeeds, only to get slammed by radical environmentalists. That is, vintner (Pahlmeyer) engages a top-flight manager (cowboy) to create a choice cabernet (rocket juice) plot, which he does before he has an approved erosion-control plan. Two years after being cited and fined by Napa County for proceeding without the approved plan, the vintner then has construction on the final few acres of his vineyard temporarily shut down in September 1999, again because of concern over hillside erosion. Later that same month, the Sierra Club sues the County of Napa for failing to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and also sues Pahlmeyer and two other growers, The Best Cellar/Vineyard Properties West and Chateau Potelle, for expanding their vineyards with the county’s “illegal” permits. The lawsuits result in a de facto moratorium on all permits to clear and plant Napa Valley slopes.

“I’m the poster child for hillside development,” Pahlmeyer laments. “‘Pahlmeyer rapes the land!'”

Behind both the lawsuits and the county’s orders to cease construction was Pahlmeyer’s neighbor, Chris Malan, and her benefactor, Peter Mennen, a surprisingly deep-pocketed postmaster in the nearby town of St. Helena. During 1999, after losing patience with the county’s spirit of compromise, the two succeeded in delivering a stinging blow to Napa’s elite. In their wake, the once enlightened choice of returning to the land to sow and reap a natural harvest has come under fire as an invasive “lifestyle” of rapaciousness and greed. Even the idea of agriculture as a bulwark against residential and commercial development has temporarily lost its luster—at least in wine country. And the uproar had ordinarily unflappable men like Jayson Pahlmeyer deeply dismayed. “I can see a time coming in America,” he says, “when you have no idea what you will be allowed to do with your own land.”



GET IN AN AIRPLANE and fly over Napa Valley, and you will see miles of vineyards like corduroy patches on the valley floor, clusters of houses in the little towns, and large estates carved out of steep wooded canyons and chaparral flats on the flanks of bracketing mountain ranges. But on the tops of the ranges you will see something you don’t from the windows of the so-called muscle houses. A cosmic electric shaver has burrowed into folds of the Mayacamas Mountains, to the west of the valley, taking Douglas firs and redwoods, and has buzz-cut whole crowns and high slopes in some areas of the range to the east. Trees, chaparral, and open fields are gone, replaced by vineyards, and it’s easy to see how exposed soil from all these vineyards might wash down and pose a threat to the Napa River below. In fact, in March 1998, the California EPA declared the river “impaired” because of sedimentation, excess nutrients from fertilizers, and traces of bacteria. These conditions, plus falling water levels due to overuse, have endangered a dwindling run of wild steelhead and made the river a priority with local environmentalists. Only the June 15 warehouse fire at Frank-Rombauer Cellars, which caused an estimated $40 million in damage, was more dramatic than river politics in Napa over the last year.

Even to those familiar with Napa, these aerial views come as something of a shock. If anything, the valley has been known over the last few decades not for clear-cutting, but for a clear conscience, as an example of how a community can fight to preserve its natural beauty and keep the worst of suburban sprawl at bay through agriculture. True, some of the five million tourists a year do, on occasion, turn the main north-south thoroughfare, California 29, into a bumper-to-bumper parking lot. Sure, the population of Napa County, now 128,000, has grown 15 percent over the last ten years, the largest decade of growth in the county’s history. Yet that’s nothing compared to neighboring counties; overall, Napa Valley still looks infinitely better than the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Two hundred years ago this country supported huge grizzlies, Tule elk, and Wappo and Pomo Indians—all driven out by the Spanish missionaries and ranchers and their Anglo successors in the mid-19th century. A former North Carolinian named George Calvert Yount supposedly planted the first grapevine here in 1836, but for nearly a century the primary crops were cherries, pears, prunes, walnuts, and grain. Although fine wines produced in the area garnered some national attention in the 1880s, the valley lost much of its early wine-related glory to an infestation of phylloxera, a root louse that kills grapevines, and, eventually, to Prohibition.

Then, in the 1960s, a mismatched collection of starving scientists, hippies, and academic and corporate dropouts, romantics all, came to Napa intent on making a go of that thoroughly un-American product, wine. Names like Martini and Mondavi gave way to the bell tones of the so-called boutiques: Heitz and Groth, Stag’s Leap and Clos Du Val, Schramsberg, Chateau Montelena, Caymus, and others. Their owners are justly celebrated for helping create something of value where some—well, the French—insisted it couldn’t be done.

A few of these folks worked hard to prevent the kind of metastasizing subdivisions that were appearing elsewhere in the region. In 1968 Napa became the first county in America to create an agricultural preserve that limited residential plots to a minimum of 20 acres (since amended to 40). This thwarted property owners, including farmers, who wanted to cut up the land to sell or pass on to heirs. Of course, the success of Napa wine, along with strict zoning that slowed growth, only made the valley more attractive to would-be wine barons in the decades that followed.

More recently, as the New Economy heated up, stock-option centimillionaires have come to bid on five- and six-figure lots of wine and sometimes offer millions—in cash—to home-owners who have no intention of selling. At June’s Napa Valley Wine Auction, Chase Bailey, a Lee Marvin look-alike and retired former executive at Cisco Systems, the network hardware giant, spent a record $500,000 for a six-liter bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle cabernet and another $700,000 on a few other bottles and local amenities. Between 1996 and 2000, the average price for a house in Napa, according to John Murdock, a loan officer at a local mortgage company, jumped 45 percent. Realtors, meanwhile, love to tell of houses bought for a seven-figure price, fixed up a bit, and resold for three times as much. Last year, 55 Napa County homes sold for more than a million dollars each. The first six months of this year, 40 such high-priced abodes changed hands. In fact, to get a sense of what the Napa lifestyle has come to, all you need to do is go along on one of the many social calls where the wealthy pay their respects to one another’s latest property enhancements.



THE HOUSE IS ROUGHLY the length of two basketball courts and strung along a ridgeline above the Silverado Trail, the more rural north-south artery along the valley’s eastern flank. To the precipitous driveway cling ascending cars driven by carefully appointed women, all come to see a new kitchen. The owner greets her guests at the front door. She has short blond hair and a very large yellow diamond on her finger. She and husband, who made his money in hotels, now, like Pahlmeyer, have their own lines of chardonnay and rocket juice. She designed the house and kitchen to her own specifications.

“I just put everything in and hoped it would come out all right,” she explains, showing her guests around. “I never saw a piece of china I didn’t want.” Her home is filled with art from four continents: tapestries, paintings of European landscapes and a Chinese peasant, sculptures of frogs in bronze, a mademoiselle in plaster, candles with gold beads embedded, innumerable colored plates.

The other women are, for the most part, also blond. They favor white slacks and sweaters and pashmina shawls. They sip coffee from white cups handed to them by the caterer in checkered trousers and white chef’s jacket. They nibble on scones and agree that the kitchen is a marvel. There’s a medieval pulley system “from some castle in France” to turn a grilling joint of meat, and, should the big oven ever be fired up, an exhaust fan “that will pull your hair out.”

Talk turns to the problems of the valley, primarily the glassy-winged sharpshooter (a bug that attacks grapevines and exposes them to a deadly bacterium) but also its human equivalent, at least in their opinion: the environmental activist. “Their complaints are so stupid,” says the owner. “They criticized us for building on a hillside, but we’re not on a hillside. We’re on top.” One of her guests says to another, “We just built two houses, but we’re not living in either one. Your new one in yet?”


“Why don’t people talk about the nice things in the valley?” the hostess continues. “Like the iris farm or our skeet-shooting club?”

The next stop is a house in St. Helena where one of the women has some landscaping to show off. Not everyone knows how to get there. “Just follow the red Jag,” says a Pashmina. They mount their respective sedans and SUVs, resplendent in the California sunlight, and in a flurry of Palm Pilots and air kisses, heigh-ho the ornamental town garden.


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.


HE WEARS TEVAS and a denim shirt with embroidered eagle feathers. The clear stems of his glasses disappear into abundant hair that has turned from blond to off-white. He smiles at Ricki Lake, his brilliant-green half-moon conure from Mexico. The male bird lands on his desktop and picks up a blueberry Mennen has left there for him.

“He named himself,” Mennen says, affectionately stroking Ricki’s head. He handles Ricki so gently you would never guess that he’s the author of vociferous letters to the editor and the person who, through his Mennen Environmental Foundation, pays the lawyers who sued the county, Pahlmeyer, et al.

For 25 years, Mennen, 57, has served as postmaster of the town of St. Helena, situated toward the valley’s north end. A native of New Jersey, Mennen moved to California in 1972. Now and then, he’s criticized by postal service bureaucrats for his avian sympathies, but he’s cherished by locals who value individualism.

Back in 1994, Mennen inherited a large chunk of stock that came from the sale, two years earlier, of his great-grandfather’s toiletries company (think Speed Stick) to Colgate-Palmolive. Discretionary income here ordinarily goes to causes like the local hospital, animal relief, or the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts. Mennen put most of his money into environmental causes, including an inventory of potential wilderness lands in Utah and lawsuits at home. He and his wife, Carlene, are unaligned with the reigning social hierarchy—and they like it that way.

Witness Mennen’s characteristic stance in a letter of his that the weekly St. Helena Star recently published. “Are we obliged to sit still,” Mennen wrote, “while our local landed gentry, this new breed of feudal lords in their absurd castles on the ridgetops, rapes the public trust and destroys the natural beauty that made this valley a slice of heaven on earth, for no better reason than to sell some stranger a bottle of arrogance?”

The Mennen Environmental Foundation, endowed with $15 million of its founder’s antiperspirant money, cannot file lawsuits directly because of its particular nonprofit status, but it can support other organizations, like the Sierra Club, that do. And in the determined crisis counselor from Atlas Peak Road, Mennen discovered a person willing, as he puts it, “to withstand incredible pressures and threats for what she believes is right. Thank God for Chris Malan.”


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.



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.


 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.”



“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.