Napa Valley is a world-renowned wine region that has made the valley wealthy and powerful, with a rich wine-making history that began well before the California Gold Rush. Production of wine has singlehandedly made Napa Valley California’s second-leading tourist attraction after Disneyland. The valley attracts nearly 4 million visitors a year, according to Visit Napa Valley, who come to taste its famous Cabernet Sauvignon, dine, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
The 1940s marked a crucial point in Napa Valley’s history when these early vintners realized they would be more successful working together than on their own. In 1944, seven vintners formed the Napa Valley Vintners Trade Association, now 539 wineries strong. Today, Napa Valley is home to more than 550 wineries, and it has become synonymous with high-quality, cult Cabs and Chardonnays alike.
However, Napa Valley’s wine industry has faced many challenges lately, the most recent being its relationship with the residents of Napa Valley. With the widespread fame and successes of the wine capital came significant inconvenience sources for residents.
Napa Valley dwellers are worried about the water supply, the use of pesticides, and the impact of vineyards on the natural landscape. The wine industry has responded by implementing sustainable practices, such as using cover crops, reducing water usage, and minimizing the use of pesticides.
Still, some Napa Valley folks feel these practices are insufficient and want stricter regulations implemented. According to the Wine-searcher, a statement made by one of Napa Valley’s residents highlights how disgruntled the non-vintner populace had grown.
“We have to protect our water supply, and we have to protect our environment. We can’t just let the wine industry do whatever it wants.”
Another source of discontent is the influx of tourists, which has strained infrastructure. The roads are congested, and the hotels are often fully booked. Residents are concerned about the impact of tourism on the natural landscape and the quality of life in the valley.
The incessant dogfights between inhabitants of Napa Valley, wineries, and residents are not considered anything new. The wineries have always been on the winning side, with the residents left to lick their wounds in silence. A show of commitment might see the wine industry make one or two changes for the “public interest,” but that is as far as it goes.
Most members of the Board of Supervisors were supporters of the wine industry, a reason the wineries got the upper hand. According to the Wine-Searcher article, “For decades leading up to 2022, Napa County voters gave almost every county office to someone friendly to the wine industry.”
However, the scales have tipped in recent times. The 2022 election has brought about a new, cold reality for Napa Valley, as two new members of the Board of Supervisors have shifted the balance of power, putting the wine industry on the defensive.
A ready instance was when Le Colline vineyard owner Dave DiCesaris proposed establishing a vineyard nearly a decade ago on the site of an abandoned apple orchard and submitted his first erosion control plan in 2014. He spent $2.1 million in fees, including a lengthy Environmental Impact Report that the county required. The Planning Commission approved the project earlier this year.
However, environmental groups objected, claiming that the vineyard would increase sediment runoff into Conn Creek, which drains into Lake Hennessy, the city of Napa’s primary source of drinking water. Members of the Board of Supervisors also insisted that not every property is suitable for use. This marked a strange turn in the narrative of Napa Valley.
“What happened to us had never happened in the history of Napa County, where staff approved a project, and it went to the Board of Supervisors, and the Board of Supervisors overturned that,” A shocked DiCesaris told Wine-Searcher.
Wine is no longer an attractive business venture for industrious entrepreneurs. Instead, the new residents moving into Napa Valley are bankers, tech multimillionaires, and others drawn by the lifestyle, with little of their own sweat equity involved.
With the arrival of more residents not drunk on the prospects of the wine industry, who had the drive and resources to fight it out with the industry, and who had sufficient power to overturn and precipitate major decisions in Napa Valley County, the balance of power has finally swung in the opposite direction for the wine industry.
Furthermore, with global warming intensifying and temperatures flaring, this wonder of the wine industry has found itself on the chopping block of climate change.
The Napa County government is working to develop a Climate Action Plan, which will outline strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change. The plan is expected to be completed in 2024.
The Napa Valley Vintners Trade Association is also frantically working to promote sustainable wine-making practices and to reduce the industry’s environmental impact. The association has developed several programs, such as the Napa Green program, which certifies wineries that meet a set of sustainability standards.
It remains to be seen how these efforts will pan out in the future, but the world’s wine capital has shown it will not go down without a good fight.