A vineyard at the Harlan Estate Winery overlooks a valley in Oakville, California, U.S. (Photographer: Chip Chipman/Bloomberg)  

The Battle Is On for the Soul—and Future—of Napa Wine Country

(Bloomberg) -- In February a Napa County Superior Court judge handed down a tentative ruling favoring a controversial vineyard project on Atlas Peak, Walt Ranch, that would cut down 14,000 mature trees—some of them 300 years old. Locals have been worried about erosion, traffic, and the irrigation demands a 209-acre vineyard will put on an already sensitive watershed. They’ve also feared that the vintners behind it, who own Hall Wines LLC in St. Helena, Calif., secretly plan to add a residential complex. Natives have been fighting the project for years with protests, lawsuits, letters, and noisy testimony before the Board of Supervisors. At one hearing, a man called the co-owner of Hall Wines, Kathryn Hall, the devil.

Such are the fiery struggles at the heart of James Conaway’s Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity. The third in an impassioned trilogy, it makes clear the stakes at hand, including the fate of businesses and the community, and the future of the region’s natural resources, which development could irreversibly damage.

Since his first book in 1990, Conaway has chronicled Napa’s transformation from an idyllic rural valley to the hub of lavish wineries churning out expensive cabernets. “The danger,” he says in an interview, “is that Napa is turning itself into a roadside attraction, a wine entertainment complex. That’s the dark side of Napa’s success.”

The Battle Is On for the Soul—and Future—of Napa Wine Country

To outsiders, Napa may look like a paradise—an abundant wellspring of natural bounty that nurtures human hedonism. But Napa at Last Light portrays a place on the front lines of the growth wars playing out across the U.S. The narrow 25-mile-long valley is home to more than 400 wineries (about 60 more are waiting for approval), and in 2016, 3.5 million visitors spent $1.9 billion there. Increasingly, residents and vintners concerned about the environment find themselves fighting Napa’s wine industry.

Most of the book is devoted to specific conflicts told through the interwoven stories of Napa’s colorful dramatis personae, helpfully listed at the front. Although Conaway doesn’t identify them as heroes or villains, you soon learn which is which in his eyes. A caution, though: Some of the tussles are more nuanced than Conaway prefers to portray them. In one emblematic tale, Andy Beckstoffer, who owns more than 1,000 acres of Napa vines, including part of the historic To Kalon Vineyard, faces off with flamboyant Burgundian Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards, who’s famous for his collection of Christian Louboutin shoes. Beckstoffer lives near Raymond, which is expanding with elaborate party venues, a gift shop with gold spit buckets, and even a dog motel that draw hundreds of tourists. Beckstoffer filed a complaint with the Board of Supervisors over the increased wastewater, noise, and traffic, but a majority voted not to act, saying “this is agriculture in the 21st century.”

The Battle Is On for the Soul—and Future—of Napa Wine Country

In the most maddening example, winemaker Randy Dunn saves 3,000 acres of fragile wilderness as a land trust preserve, only to see it threatened by wealthy wannabe vintner Mike Davis. The latter aims to plant a vineyard nearby, despite entreaties from some of the valley’s famous personalities. Worried that vineyard runoff and terraforming (extracting boulders and felling huge trees) will destroy the peace of the preserve and contaminate the reservoir for St. Helena’s drinking water, Dunn and others huddle to talk strategy on their front porches. Objections filed with California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and a letter from the city engineer have resulted in the withholding of approvals for Davis to cut trees for now, but a lawsuit may be in the offing.

The book’s ultimate villains are uber-wealthy Kathryn and Craig Hall and the Walt Ranch project. Craig, a boom-and-bust real estate developer, once co-owned the Dallas Cowboys. But again, all is not so clear-cut; both are low-key and charming in person, and they can point to many “green initiatives” at their organic vineyards and at Hall winery, which has gold certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The Walt Ranch project is awaiting final approval.

Ironically, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, the first in the country, which was founded on the belief that “the highest and best use” of the land is agriculture. It was intended to protect the valley from development. “Farming in Napa now is not what farming meant in 1968,” Conaway says. “Now farming is a real estate deal. The innocence of Eden is gone.”

To contact the author of this story: Elin McCoy in New York at elinmccoy@gmail.com.

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