Grandstanding on agricultural sustainabilty
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George Caloyannidis | Oct 6, 2015

It is natural, though hardly constructive, when an industry is criticized for some of its practices for it to hunker down in defense mode. This is the only way I can explain Stuart Smith’s guest commentary in the Napa Valley Register in which he characterized the concerns over the Napa valley’s communal quality of life a “cacophony” and “hypocritical” (“Agricultural sustainability is not possible without economic vitality,” Sept. 14).

I don’t know anyone who does not appreciate the wine industry’s contributions to the Napa Valley; its economy, its charitable activity, its very identity. But there is no industry whose operation is without faults or harm. The question is whether pointing them out is mean-spirited, as Mr. Smith suggests, or constructive.

It is indisputable that the wine industry could not be on a healthier financial footing. If nothing else, the proliferation of luxury cars in this valley is a good barometer. Is it not good enough? I simply do not follow Mr. Smith’s logic of why the industry’s vitality, in fact it’s very survival, relies on its unfettered growth. It seems to me the opposite to be true.

No structure can remain intact under continuous growth. It needs to transform itself beyond certain limits to survive, and therein lies the debate in which we all need to engage. The 2007 Napa County General Plan environmental impact report predicts that if we continue on this growth pattern, by 2030 we will need six lanes from Vallejo to Yountville and a four-lane freeway from Yountville to Calistoga only 15 years from now to maintain acceptable level “C” traffic flow. Caltrans will step in and do it whether we want it or not. Is this our vision of agricultural sustainability?

If the wine industry aspires to maintain its beneficial membership within Napa Valley, it needs to take a hard look at its longstanding support of unfettered growth. And so does the county. We have reached the point where such growth is no longer objected to by local neighborhoods. New wineries and hotels as far upvalley as Calistoga, generate serious problems in St. Helena and as far south as American Canyon with valley-wide ramifications. Is traffic congestion, loss of resources, water, forests, watersheds, a local workforce, our vision of agricultural sustainability?

Collectively, when in harmony, these are the essential elements of a high communal quality of life that are the ultimate attraction for residents and visitors; the very ones who support the wine market.

Here are facts that neither the wine industry nor county policy can no longer mischaracterize or ignore:

More than half the traffic generated in this county is directly attributable to the wine industry and its little sister, the hospitality industry, which relies on it for its lifeblood. According to the recent study, 16 percent of traffic comes from tourism and 25 percent from commuting workforce of these low-paying industries. Mr. Smith tells us that the Napa Valley population doubled during the past 45 years. Fair enough, but he fails to tell us that traffic has increased six-fold during that same period. Blaming it on the 9 percent pass-through traffic will no longer fly as an excuse.

Not to be ignored is a silent local workforce that can only afford to live in crammed quarters. Communal quality of life cacophony?

Moreover, who foots the bill for the subsidies low-paid workers qualify for? Who foots the bill for the high water rates? Who foots the bill for the accelerated deterioration of the local infrastructure, all due to the daily influx of outsiders to the tune of one third of our entire population? The reality is that everyone of us is chipping in to support wine industry profits. Perhaps this is the corollary side of sustainability, even charity.

And then there is this: Imagine if four out of 10 baseball players were using performance-enhancing drugs while the rest of them didn’t. Would the league afford to stand by and condone unfair competition? Would it in the face of the magnitude of abuse legalize drug use? When the honor system was compromised, testing and heavy penalties were introduced to save the very integrity of the game.

Not in Napa County. When wineries are abusing the honor system to the tune of four out of 10 as they do, and the industry remains silent with the help of the county that rewards rather than penalizes the cheaters, we have a problem affecting the very core values of our community generations of the farming community helped build.

And while the wine industry likes to project itself as stewards of a sustainable environment, it remains silent, fully cognizant that every use permit violation is an activity that avoided California Environmental Quality Act review and its protections afforded the community’s quality of life.

Such policies eat at the very heart of fairness and cheating embodied in our traditional moral fabric, which I have, no doubt, every resident of the county embraces. But the vintners and the county are first to circle the wagons when they are exposed and forced to take appropriate action. It seems to me that characterizing as hypocrites the ones who dare sound the alarm on the loss of balance, perspective and honesty is misplaced if not misdirected.

Let’s look at sustainability’s real lifeblood: If we continue to sacrifice our core values in the interest of ever higher profits, we are paving the way for a cynical generation to succeed us. Stewardship? What was that?

Caloyaniddis NVR LTE: Grandstanding on agricultural sustainabilty

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