Because the vineyards in Napa’s wine country are so gorgeous, and because they are often thought of by most as a tourist destination, it’s easy to forget that vineyards are in fact working commercial farms. And to operate a farm ethically means a constant negotiation between doing what’s best for the environment and getting the most from your crops. A new bill in Napa County aims to iron out that negotiation, but not everyone is thrilled.
The Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, sometimes referred to as Measure C, is a mail-in proposition, which is out now and is to be tallied on June 5. It aims to set some basic restrictions on new vineyard construction in Napa County: distance from streams, maximum amount of woodland that can be cut down…that kind of thing. But in a county where agriculture is referred to as the “highest and best use” of the land, any attempt to curb agricultural development can be seen as inflammatory. And, of course, wine in Napa is a billion-dollar industry, the spark of not only the county’s best-known product, but also its vital tourism industry.
Measure C, as noted in an excellent San Francisco Chronicle article, is a slight course correction from previous preservation rules. While only about nine percent of Napa’s total land is vineyard, those businesses can have an outsized effect on the environment. Many vineyards are located on hillsides, which encourages pesticides and fertilizers to flow downhill and potentially contaminate waterways. Vineyards are also lousy for erosion; farmers like to keep the area below the vines clear of weeds, which can help with grape growth but also means that there’s hardly any rootstock to keep the soil in place.
Though Napa’s Measure C is contentious, party lines are less obvious; it’s not a matter of environmental activists versus corporations. Many of the owners of more established vineyards support the legislation, while opponents include the local Farm Bureau (which is, generally speaking, pro-business) and various newer vineyard owners. The proponents say the measure is necessary to protect the environment and natural beauty of the region; opponents say the bill is lacking scientific data and that by making land harder to use for vineyards, it may encourage the construction of gross McMansions.
The voters will decide later this spring.