Home Wine and Water Watch challenges Northern California wine empire

Wine and Water Watch challenges Northern California wine empire


L_102910-cals-wineActivists objecting to the over-growth of the wine/hospitality industry in rural areas of four Northern California counties have met monthly for half a year. At their August 15 meeting in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, one of the wine industry’s epicenters, they agreed to name themselves Wine and Water Watch (WWW).

They ratified the following mission statement: “We challenge the over-development of the wine tourism industry and promote ethical land and water use. We advocate agricultural practices that are ecologically regenerative.”

The new WWW name replaces the temporary name of Four County Network, which was agreed upon at the third meeting. The group met previously in

Middletown, Lake County, Jenner on the Sonoma County coast, twice in Calistoga, Napa County, and in unincorporated Graton, Sonoma County. Attendance has varied from around two-dozen to over 50 activists, by invitation only.

The group has studied the wine industry and criticized its over-expansion, especially in rural areas. Participants have published some of their research widely, attended meetings of Sonoma County’s Wine Advisory Group, which is dominated by the wine industry, been interviewed by newspapers, on the radio and TV, and held protest signs in Napa County. They have sent many letters to editors and government officials. A mass movement seems to be emerging.

Among those participating in WWW have been activists from various groups, including Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Napa Vision 2050, Hidden Valley Lake Watershed, Valley of the Moon Alliance, Westside Association to Save Agricultureand Community Alliance with Family Farmers. They speak at the meetings as individuals, rather than as representatives of groups.

Participants include organic farmers, grape-growers, wine-makers, lawyers, artists, writers, parents, community activists, and others concerned about the future of the counties, towns, and mainly rural areas where they live.

About thirty people attended the Aug. 15 monthly meeting. Community advocate and grape-grower Judith Olney, who chairs the Westside Community Association Advisory group and works with the Sonoma County Water Coalition, welcomed about 30 people to the Healdsburg meeting. She distributed a list of 30 groups in Sonoma County working on related issues.

“I have a strong interest in pesticide contamination,” revealed Lake County’s Elizabeth Montgomery. “The Wild Diamond vineyard proposed would be on top of a vulnerable aquifer and close to my home. I do not appreciate being driven out of my home by pesticides.”

“Don’t let the well go dry,” author Jonah Raskin remembered his father teaching him. In fact, wells have been going dry throughout  California in this fourth straight drought year, especially when a new vineyard moves in next door or expands.

Raskin reported on a book he is writing for the University of California Press on water. “Water is complicated. I’ve seen some wineries making important changes, due to the pressure.”



“I’m concerned with all these wineries, wineries, wineries,” declared David Garden of Napa County. “The single crop for Napa is now grapes.” During his childhood “in l940 there were five wineries, whereas there are now 500. We had almonds and all kinds of food crops.”

“The degradation of the quality of life and small town character is what concerns me,” Denise Hunt of Healdsburg said. “We need to learn how to work with people on all sides. Healdsburg has been ranked as one of the top ten small towns.” This generates excessive tourism and drives up prices on essentials, such as housing and food.

Terry and Carolyn Harrison of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) also commented on the importance of working with both agricultural and environmental groups.

“Entertainment, hospitality, and tourism is what is killing the rural areas,” commented one person. “Wineries as event centers displace local food production.”

“Bad legislation is worse then no legislation,” claimed attorney Jerry Bernhaut. “It can be used to do damage.”

“Our Facebook Page has reached over 12,000 people,” reported Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC) co-funder Padi Selwyn.

“We’re facing large developments,” reported Linda Hale of Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA). “Chinese businessmen are already here with two huge wineries/event centers planned in Sonoma Valley.”

Sonoma State University’s (SSU) Business School sends professors to China and elsewhere in Asia to recruit investments. The rising Chinese middle class has a taste for California wine.

SSU recently received a $500,000 donation from a Napa winery, which it uses to transform a building that used to be called The Commons. Students and faculty would eat, meet, and hold meetings and even classes there, where this reporter taught writing. Ironically, SSU’s Commons has been taken over by the wine industry, which hoards water, land, and other essentials to human, animal, and plant life.

“The Syar Quarry in Napa County wants to expand,” reported Kathy Felch. “It proposes to double its operations. It has a history of environmental violations and has been sued five times.”

Olney reported observing meetings of the Wine Advisory Group, which was created to advise Sonoma County’s Planning and Resources Management Department. “The group is 2/3’s wine industry and 1/3 community. We have learned that the county is out of compliance with its own General Plan. Outlaw wineries break the rules and get off scot free.”

“We need to get serious about fundraising and reach out to urban people in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We could do some crowd-funding,” commented Geoff Ellsworth of St. Helena, Napa.



Reflecting on the different types of groups emerging to challenge Northern California’s growing Big Wine, there seems to be three compatible models: business, government, and grass roots collaborative community groups.

Business models tend to have clear leadership, which is often top-down, and can be somewhat secretive. They tend to be more efficient. The government types understand and focus on administrative remedies, which often requires attending many meetings.

WWW is a grass roots group, with participation from individuals of the other two models. It has taken six months to decide upon a name and mission statement. Other groups have made these decisions earlier in their organizational development (OD). Each type of group has merits.

Direct, deep democracy with one-person-one-vote can be slow, cumbersome, sometimes messy, and even frustrating. On the other hand, it can build community and buy-in by participants, which is important for long-term struggles, which will be necessary with the powerful Big Wine.

The OD model of “forming, storming, norming, and performing” can be helpful. WWW is still in the first stage of forming. According to this theory, some storming is likely to happen. Then an issue is how it is resolved. WWW has no steering committee yet. The only committee so far has been the mission statement committee.

Some WWW members feel that it is important to first try all official channels possible, but the struggle against Big Wine can only be won “on the ground.” Through picketing, groups such as Watertrough Children’s Alliance and Apple Roots Group were able to get a “Stop Work” order on a Paul Hobbs’ vineyard, at least temporarily, and caused him to shut down a wine tasting that was being peacefully picketed.

The Grape Rush in Sonoma and Napa counties has made grapes an invasive species that threatens to consume water and land. Sonoma County has over 60,000 acres in grapes and only about 12,000 in food crops.

One cannot live on wine alone. Life is impossible without either food or water. The once diverse agriculture of Sonoma and Napa Counties now has to import more of our food, as the Grape Empire colonizes more land and water, Nearby Lake and Mendocino counties are at risk.

What might be described as a “mass movement,” or even a “rural rebellion,” seems to be growing here in Northern California.

For more information: www. WineWaterWatch.org (in process)

Shepherd Bliss {[email protected]} is a co-founder of Wine and Water Watch, farms, has retired from college teaching, and has contributed to 24 books.



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