Blakeley Construction, located just outside Calistoga for more than half a century, family-operated, is well-respected for both its work ethic and its community involvement. It’s a company deeply connected to this land and its people. However, upon a complaint from a recent neighbor about their operation and zoning rules, the county fined Blakeley and stipulated they eventually cease operations there.
Meanwhile, Reverie Winery, also just outside Calistoga, admitted violating its permits and then appealed to the county to expand them. The request was granted.
Locals, startled at the Blakeley case and the county’s caprices, have eloquently expressed outrage.
Defenders of the rulings might argue that their particulars prohibit linking them, but the details are less important than the ironic trend they exemplify. The growing wine industry and its votaries, exploiting the county’s professed commitment to agriculture and a semi-rural lifestyle, are displacing the very tradition that made the valley attractive.
Long reputed for farming and fine grapes, Napa Valley today is increasingly known as a tourist destination. There are more wineries every year. Challenged to score shelf space in a crowded market, they rely increasingly on visitors to buy their products and on special events to promote them.
So, attracted by a superior product, rural loveliness, and relentless marketing, visitors throng the valley. Local housing, otherwise available for the growing wine industry’s lower-paid hospitality and field workers, goes increasingly to part-time occupants attracted to the tony wine world; so real estate prices rise and the workers must commute (witness traffic on Highway 29). Meanwhile, new settlers love the glamour, but not necessarily the grit; hence, the Blakeley case.
Either by economics---or by fiat---the soul of Napa Valley suffers.
Soul, a respect for the essence of things, refers to connection, depth, history, and beauty; less to money. Napa County’s professed primary activity, agriculture, is literally and soulfully connected to its landscape: farming and related services like Blakeley actually work the dirt. Tourism by contrast is a derivative industry, sparkling, meretricious. It generates loads of money, so municipalities and chambers of commerce love it. I do too---until it smothers soul. We are at that critical point now.
Napa is losing its soul when it: refers relentlessly to economics but not to aesthetics; promotes development and a tourism that degrade its semi-rural experience; can’t find a way to protect an Upvalley tradition like Blakeley Construction but has no problem approving a wayward winery’s requests for more visitors.
Tourist revenue may console a county losing its heritage, but extreme tourism confounds residents who believed in Napa’s commitment to its semi-rural character. It’s sad to see the soul of a community sold for a tsunami of tourists. And even tourists, in clogged traffic and perfect tasting rooms, will recognize soulless inauthenticity and eventually disparage “Napafication.”
If soul were strictly a local issue, I wouldn’t offer my poor scribbling here: Calistoga, with hundreds of new resort rooms recently approved, has already rolled its dice.
But the soul of the county may still be salvaged if applications for even more visitors and events are denied. We can appreciate the wine industry---and simultaneously cap its expansion, arrest Napa Valley’s urbanization.
The Blakeley case shows the exploitation of our county has unexpected consequences. Where will it happen next?