It is clear to all those paying attention, that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the laws of nature and economics in the Napa Valley. When I moved here in the mid-'70s, this valley was all about agriculture. Because of the soil, climate and abundant water, the early grape farmers recognized right away, that this was a very special place to grow grapes and make estate wine. They were purists, driven by their passion to grow the best grapes and make the finest wine. They wanted to show the world that the Napa Valley rivaled the best wines in the world. And they shared their knowledge with each other.
Unfortunately, this success was noticed by large corporations who came in to the valley with the bottom-line mentality. Over the last 20 years, many more wineries have been built to accommodate the world’s growing appetite for high-end wine. At one point along the way, we seemed to have a balance. What was good for the agricultural industry was also beneficial to our citizens.
However, when the recent economic slump hit the United States, wine sales tailed off, tourism rates decreased, and pressure was put on county policies because the tourism industry’s bottom lines were hurting badly. The pressure worked, and with newly minted approval to sell all kinds of things, and have food and events galore, the wineries started evolving into event centers, catering to the tourists and neglecting to care about their community.
Now we the people who live here are feeling all the negative effects when the laws of nature and economics clash. Our roads are crowded, our water future is in doubt, our watersheds and old growth forests are being ripped out, and our basic infrastructure has a much shorter life span. We are out of balance, and need to work together to advance the cause of the average man and woman in this county. The benefits are going to a few while the many suffer the consequences.
This has not gone unnoticed. As James Conaway, respected author and historian on the Napa Valley, so succinctly writes, “Many concerns among residents inevitably boil down to one: thwarting attempts by individuals or corporations who want a larger part of the action than the community is willing to give.” We need to get back into balance.
We sell twice as much wine as we grow grapes here. Half the grapes are imported. We have a special tax levied on hotel guests here, which funds the very existence of the Napa tourist industry’s lobbying effort, to the tune of $5.6 million per year. Already we have 3.5 million visitors per year.
County staff revealed two weeks ago that current permits allow as many as 23,000 “events” at wineries in Napa each year. That’s potentially over 60 every single day. We, the residents, should not have to put up with that kind of intrusion in our lives. They use our roads, water and total infrastructure. We the residents pay through our taxes, and the money goes to industry. We need to get back into balance.
The awareness within county offices grows with each debate before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. A group named the Agriculture Protection Advisory Committee was formed by these politicians, but the majority of members are from tourist-related industry. So far, they have voted to block all the ideas floated that would have served the community’s needs more than their own.
An obvious first step would be to rein in the ancillary uses at wineries. With over 23,000 “events” already approved, and tourism’s lobby group hunkered down, it doesn’t look good on that one.
Of course the hospitality industry supports a payroll of $300 million in the valley, with $52 million in tax revenue. That makes for a very strong lobby. That effort has led to the constant refrain heard from developers, “its always better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.” The current philosophy demonstrated from our county Planning Commission reflects that sentiment.
Recently, I’ve sat in the audience and watched the majority of the commissioners forgive every single abuse brought to its attention. These include abuses of use permits, major winery expansion and development where county building department requirements were ignored, even a winery that dug a cave without a permit. All these cheaters were exonerated. We need to get back into balance.
We have reached the critical mass necessary to put the concerns of the community first. We will not have our tax dollars used to line the pockets of the tourist industry any longer. There’s a darker side to Napa’s success, and the residents are shouldering the burden.