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Vineyard Monocultures

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The massive growth of the wine industry has led to a very real problem–wine monocultures that transform ecologically complex places such as the hills of Napa County into carefully manicured landscapes that leave no room for the wild. That a lot of wineries require hillsides makes this worse, as many species exist on a pretty strict elevation level. As more and more land gets transformed into wineries, it becomes all the more important to create land-use restrictions that protect some of those valuable ecosystems. In Napa, that creates a big battle between different groups of rich white people–vineyard owners versus home owners, some of which are also wine makers.

Measure C, the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, on a mail-in ballot to be tallied June 5, seeks to curb further vineyard development to preserve the streams, oak trees and natural habitats on the Napa Valley hillsides. It’s a proposal that has bitterly divided the valley.

Its supporters, led by local environmentalists Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, believe that after 50 years of unbridled success, the profit-hungry wine industry has brutally exploited the landscape. In the name of growing grapes, too many trees have been cut down, too much water contaminated. Measure C would mandate that vineyards have larger setbacks from streams and would set a hard limit on further deforestation.

The measure’s opponents, on the other hand, argue that it would undermine the one thing that has kept Napa Valley beautiful and made it prosperous: agriculture.

The harsh tenor of the debate over Measure C, however, has made it clear that much more than trees and streams are at stake. At its core this battle is between dueling visions for what Napa Valley should be — visions of preservation versus development, of stasis versus growth.

“This is the next step for the next 50 years,” Hackett says. “If the initiative doesn’t pass, we’re lost.”

That assessment finds a strange echo in the words of a Measure C opponent, Dario Sattui, owner of V. Sattui and Castello di Amorosa wineries: “If this initiative passes, it will be the beginning of the demise of the wine industry in Napa County.”

If the 1968 Ag Preserve’s objective was to protect Napa Valley for agriculture, the question, it seems now, is: Does Napa need protection from agriculture?

Yes, yes it does. The idea that more development is necessary for Napa agriculture to survive is disingenuous. Vineyard owners are only going to grow more wealthy. It’s true that they might not be able to invest even more in their Napa vineyards, but then with climate change, the smart money is on investing further north anyway, as far north as British Columbia. This is really just a rich white version of most other environmental debates–development over preserving land for the future. It’s true enough that housing developments are also a problem, but vineyard agriculture is not sustainable in terms of growth, with everything left in Napa steeper hillsides. I have trouble thinking of a case where the latter side won and it wasn’t a good idea in the end. I hope Napa residents vote for this measure.

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