Napa Valley Winery sues Napa County over environmental rules

“The owner of one of Napa Valley’s most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon brands is suing Napa County in an effort to reverse what he called ’25 years of flagrant overreach’ and ‘obstruction’ that prevented the owners to develop vineyards “the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The court case against Napa County, filed in California state court by hundred acres of Saint Helena—a dearcult cellar“- alleges that the county engaged in a “significant administrative overreach” of its conservation regulations and erected “a mountainous bureaucracy and endless bureaucratic hurdles” that hampered the winery’s ability to utilize and improve its property.

“If you’re an average guy trying to start a winery in Napa Valley, his bureaucracy has gone crazy and is going overboard on every level,” said Hundred Acre owner Jayson Woodbridge. Told Wine industry monthly this month. “It doesn’t bode well for the future of Napa Valley when you make it so inconvenient for agriculture.”

Woodbridge isn’t alone in finding Napa County officials to be roadblocks to winemaking. Earlier this month, Napa Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Koblas Told Bloomberg Law that the local agricultural office, which has many winemakers among its members, has had “”a number of members who regularly come to us asking for our help “in dealing with the county.”

The lawsuit focuses on two key areas: 1) the clearing of charred trees and other flora damaged in a 2020 fire and 2) the introduction of an experimental vineyard that the winery introduced earlier this year.

According to the lawsuit, the county says the charred trees the winery removed were “vegetation” and that clearing the vegetation requires county permission. He also claims that experimental vineyards are plantations and that planting vineyards also requires permission from the county. But the suit alleges the county is targeting the winery “for clearing from his property the remains of dead and charred trees incinerated by the Glass Fire of 2020 [and seeking to prevent it] to plant a unique, experimental, dry-grown vineyard using new non-erosive techniques that do not disturb any of the soils on the applicant’s land and instead require the applicant to “revegetate” the land with the same type of high fire risk trees that fueled the 2020 fire.

Given the lawsuit’s focus on fire damage and new methods of planting vineyards, a major problem throughout California in general and for cellars there specifically, the other one possible way to alleviate this problem by helping to reduce the potential fuel for future fires –experts say the lawsuit could have “huge implications for the future of Napa Valley.”

The trial dates back two years. It details how the lands of the winery, along with thousands of acres of other properties in Napa Valley, were badly burned during the devastating Glass Fire, which left “blackened hillsides littered with dead and dying trees.” which are still visible today. The fire “destroyed” 80 acres of winery flora, much of it small trees and brush. After a year that saw no regrowth among the charred tree remains, the claimant says they removed a small portion of the unsightly and potentially dangerous tree remains.

Separately, by 2021 the winery had learned and decided to try and recreate a once popular but largely disused way of “dry” wine grapes – a way of placing rootstocks in bottomless clay pots filled with compost that avoided “any soil disturbance or other erosive activity” — on its hillsides.

“The method involves placing a small, bottomless container on the ground and filling it with compost and a single rootstock,” the suit explains. “The rootstock then grows through the compost and takes root in the soil without any plowing, drilling or other soil-disturbing activity.”

The experimental approach, which the winery began to implement last May, was very promising.

“If successful, such a dry-grown vineyard would provide many benefits, including increased erosion control with a vineyard that develops the deep and extensive root growth needed to reach water sources in the soil; -substantial fire protection guarding the property, and the structures of neighboring properties; a better view in relation to the arid, burnt-out landscape left by the glass fire; and potentially an economically productive use of the land,” the suit details.

The county saw things differently. Days after implementing his experimental approach, county inspectors showed up at the winery claiming he might be violating county code.

“The notice said [the] company removed vegetation on 7 acres in preparation for a vineyard,” the Napa Valley Registry reported earlier this month.

In September, according to lawsuit details, the county cited the winery for various alleged conservation violations, including “clearing vegetation and preparing land for the vineyard.” The county demanded that the winery take a number of costly steps, including hiring a botanist to map the vegetation in the winery, even though, as the lawsuit explains, “the glass fire only left virtually no vegetation on the property”.

“The county’s charges and regulatory requirements were at all times completely without merit,” the lawsuit says. “The plaintiff never removed any ground cover (the glass fire did), never moved soil on the property, and, as described above, did not engage in any ‘preparation of the soil “when setting up his experimental vineyard.”

The winery argues that the fire – not the winery – “removed” vegetation from its property. And the winery’s method of introducing new rootstocks to its hillside did not involve any “earth-moving activity” prohibited by county code. “Indeed, the very purpose of plaintiff’s non-erosive experimental vineyard was to see if a vineyard could be introduced without engaging in these activities,” the winery explains in the lawsuit.

By late summer, the winery saw that the experimental “potted rootstock” process had taken hold. So the winery repeated the process over much of an acre of their property.

Then, shortly after the winemaker met with the county in September and detailed his position and actions, the lawsuit explains, the county “took the unsubstantiated and untenable position that any development of a vineyard on a hill requires county-approved erosion control. Plan.” The winery says the county has no authority under law to require it to develop or follow such a plan.

The lawsuit alleges that the county violated the winery’s rights under the state constitution to equal protection and due process under the law. He asks the court to determine whether the conservation regulations in question apply to the winery’s experimental vineyard and its “removal of the charred remains of fire-killed trees and stumps” and to prohibit the county from enforcing these regulations against the winery.

This week, just days after the lawsuit was filed, the county, which has its own version of events, descended on the Hundred Acre property with a court order to conduct a property inspection. In a Press release announcing the search, the county suggested the timing of the raid was entirely coincidental, planned simply to take place before the onset of the rainy season.

Woodbridge, the owner of Hundred Acre, seems as frustrated as he is resolved.

“It’s bureaucracy at a level where they become the biggest obstacle to doing anything productive, overriding their authority on many levels,” Woodbridge said. Wine industry monthly. “They only do it because they think they can get away with it.”

If Woodbridge and Hundred Acre win, as I hope, the county won’t get away with it. And Hundred Acre, other wineries and consumers, as well as the environment, could fare better.

Elisha A. Tilghman