You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Winter takes a break in Napa Valley, producing warm, sunny days

What the heck happened to winter?

It was here during most of January. Mornings were often frosty, and the 4.22 inches of rainfall at Napa State Hospital is just short of the average for the month, after a December that saw virtually no rain.

Now the rains are again on hiatus, almost assuring a below-average rainfall season. The situation is far from dire for either city of Napa water supplies or grape growers, but challenges could arise.

“We are in a two-week hold, at least to around the 14th or 15th,” said Mike Pechner of Fairfield-based Golden West Meteorology.

Meanwhile, the heat is here. Temperatures are predicted this weekend to reach into the 70s, perhaps 10 to 15 degrees above normal at some locations.

“We could see a few records,” Pechner said.

The culprit is once again a large high pressure area that Pechner said stretches from Alaska to Southern California. That storm-repelling pressure also led to dry winters during the recent five-year drought, with last winter’s near-record rainfall being the exception.

Pechner said that this high pressure in the winter seems to have become a new normal and could be linked to climate change. It is part of a complex global chain of weather patterns that has seen flooding in Paris, snow along the Gulf Coast and the first snow in 50 years in Morroco’s desert.

“The pattern is stuck,” Pechner said. “But there’s some indication it could break down after the 15th.”

One forecast model shows a mid-month change that could see subtropical storms undercut the ridge, he said. That could ultimately lead to colder, Gulf of Alaska storms that would bring needed snow to the Sierra Nevada.

The dry start to February, combined with the almost dry December, make a normal 2017-18 rainfall year a longshot. The rain year is measured from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, but most of the big rains end with March.

Already the deficit is so great that late February and March rains would have to be about double the norm just to reach the season average. Napa State Hospital usually receives about 27 inches for the rain season. The total to date is 8.61 inches.

The city of Napa uses Lake Hennessey in the hills east of Rutherford to capture much of the water used by its homes and businesses. Lake Hennessey is about 79 percent full, compared to 75 percent at the start of the rain year, officials said.

“It’s comfortable for this time of year,” city Water General Manager Joy Eldredge said. “We still have a couple of months yet.”

Meanwhile, the lack of big storms has been helpful for the city’s smaller Milliken Reservoir east of Napa, Eldredge said. The Atlas Fire burned away vegetation up to its shores, raising the possibility that heavy rains could wash sediments and charred materials into the water. The city has taken such steps as using wattles to prevent erosion.

“The storms as they’ve come in have been mild or gentle, which is perfect after a fire, compared to big, two-inches-at-a-time storms,” Eldredge said.

Milliken Reservoir is 75 percent full, compared to 55 percent at the start of the rain year, she said.

Grape growers in Napa County’s wine country face at least some challenges with the weather.

Grapegrower Steve Moulds said his small reservoir for his vineyards along Dry Creek Road in the Oak Knoll area is only half full. This is the longest it’s remained that way in his 20 years here.

“Usually the reservoir is full by the end of December,” said Moulds, who is past president for Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “Occasionally it’s gone to the end of January. To be half-full at this point of the season is alarming.”

Moulds and many other growers in the hilly, agricultural watershed use reservoirs to capture irrigation water. They use the water to help the vines thrive during the dry, hot stretches of summer. Moulds said his property has limited groundwater.

“With a two-week dry spell ahead of us, I am getting concerned,” Moulds said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some rains before too long.”

But the vines themselves, now dormant, should be in good shape despite the subpar rain amounts, said Garrett Buckland, president of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

Most of Napa Valley has received about 10 inches of rain, about 30 percent below average, Buckland said. Eight to 12 inches is needed so grapevines have a full water profile in the soil, with a few inches in March to push that saturation into the summer.

“The most important aspect when it comes to rainfall is, when is the last rain?” said Buckland, who is with Premiere Viticultural Services. “We don’t actually need very much water for grape vines.”

Meanwhile, warm weather could trigger early bud break, Buckland said. Typically, bud break happens in March and in April for later varieties, but growers are used to a two-week swing one way or the other.

An early bud break means another two weeks of having to worry about frost, Buckland said. A later pruning of dormant vines can delay bud break.

For now, weather forecasts indicate residents and growers alike can say “goodbye” to winter for the immediate future.

“It will be a prelude to spring, unfortunately,” Pechner said.

Shearer parents question school administrators about alleged sexual assault report

Shearer Elementary School parents questioned school administrators about their children’s safety this week after discovering that they had not been informed about an alleged sexual assault that had been reported at the school last fall.

Via the Napa County Crime Map, parents discovered that a report of child sexual abuse had been made at the school on Nov. 6. The alleged crime is listed as felony lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14 years old.

Napa Police and representatives with the Napa Valley Unified School District confirmed that a report had been made, that there was an investigation and that no arrest was made.

After finding out about it, Monique Lalonde, a parent at the school, posted some information about the allegation on Facebook, saying that the alleged incident happened between a student and a teacher’s aide on school property during school hours. She was trying to figure out what, if anything, she should do with this information.

“I found out about this a few weeks ago … (and) I was struggling with how I should handle this,” Lalonde said Wednesday. Finally, on Monday night, she posted the information online and soon other parents were sharing the post, demanding answers from the school.

By Thursday, the post on her personal Facebook page had been shared 50 times.

Parents wanted to know the result of any investigation that was done and why they weren’t informed of the allegations when they were made in November.

School officials said that, upon learning of the alleged incident, they immediately reported it to Child Protective Services (CPS) and the Napa Police.

Police performed their own investigation following the Nov. 6 report, but it’s no longer being actively investigated, Lt. Brian Campagna said Wednesday. Police also reported the matter to CPS.

The incident was alleged to have occurred on Nov. 3.

NVUSD officials said Wednesday that the employee who had been under investigation no longer works for the district for reasons unrelated to the allegations.

But, during an informal meeting at the school on Thursday morning, officials told parents that the employee was fired because of the incident.

Alejandro Hogan, assistant superintendent for NVUSD Human Resources, told parents that the male employee had acted in a way that was “borderline” and which school officials deemed “inappropriate,” though not illegal, and fired him.

There was no assault, and any information on social media saying that there was one is false, Principal Elizabeth Gonzalez told parents. Although she understands their desire for more information, Gonzalez said the school must also protect the student and the former employee’s privacy.

“We took this matter very serious,” she said.

Before Hogan showed up at the meeting, communication between the angry parents, Gonzalez and Dana Page, executive director of NVUSD Human Resources, had broken down. Page told the parents that the police investigation concluded that nothing illegal had occurred, so parents who weren’t directly affected were not informed.

“If this happened way back in November, why am I just hearing about it now,” one father asked.

“Just because an allegation is made … doesn’t mean a person is guilty,” Page said. If there was a threat to students, parents would have been contacted, she said.

Parents were not happy with what one mother called Page’s “scripted” response.

“When do we get to know that something occurred?” asked another dad. “We are pissed off.” Although he doesn’t think the school is trying to cover anything up or that there is a “network of predators” at the school, he said that the optics look bad.

Parents said that they are informed almost daily about things going on at the school, so why not this?

What happens next time? they asked. Can the school come up with some sort of protocol to inform them when allegations are made or resolved?

“I don’t want parents to feel more fear because there was an allegation or report,” Page said. The school doesn’t want parents to panic, especially because no crime was committed, she said. The person in question, she added, has no criminal record.

“Information is always better,” said a parent. “Not telling us anything is wrong.”

“Now it looks wrong,” said another.

“We should have known more. You’re asking us to trust you, but how can we?”

Whether or not the alleged perpetrator was cleared or arrested, parents still have a right to know what is going on at their children’s school, Lalonde said.

“I think I’m more mad now than before I got here,” said one mother. “Is my kid safe here or do I need to take him out?”

“I’m sorry this wasn’t satisfying to you all,” Page said.

“The most important thing that (parents) need to know is the safety of their kids is of utmost importance to us and if we had any reason to suspect their kids weren’t safe they would know about it,” Elizabeth Emmett, NVUSD spokesperson, said after the meeting. “If something like this happened again, we wouldn’t inform them .... we would handle it in the same exact way.”

Courtesy of Chateau Montelena Winery 

Chateau Montelena's CEO and master winemaker Bo Barrett.

Napa wine industry fights to protect Napa Valley name on labels

Can a wine using Napa Valley grapes, but made in another state, be labeled as a Napa Valley wine?

According to federal labeling laws, the answer is generally no. Yet the question has nonetheless dogged and divided the wine industry for several years, driven by a “loophole” of sorts in today’s regulations.

The loophole, as opponents refer to it, allows wineries that hold a certificate exempting a wine of theirs from label approval (called a Certificate of Labeling Approval, or COLA, exemption) to buy out-of-state grapes, make the wine in their state and label it with the origin of the grapes, as long as the wine is then sold only in the state where it was made.

Now, a proposed rule from the federal authority on the issue, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, is poised to end the practice.

If passed, the rule would be the culmination of a years-long effort by the local wine industry’s main trade group, the Napa Valley Vintners, who have sought to end the practice, which they call “inherently misleading.”

At stake, the group contends, is the integrity of the AVA system.

AVAs, or American Viticulture Areas, are designated wine grape growing areas like Napa Valley, Paso Robles, the Finger Lakes region of New York and the Willamette Valley in Oregon, among many others. For a wine label to carry the name of an AVA, federal labeling laws call for 85 percent of its grapes to come from the region in question. The wine must also be made and finished within the state, or states, where the AVA is.

But again, that applies only to wines that are made with plans to be sold across state lines. As it stands, if a winery with a COLA exemption in Texas buys Napa Valley grapes and produces a wine in Texas that is then sold only within Texas, then that wine can use the Napa Valley AVA on its label.

Such is the current “loophole” that, if closed, would prevent hypothetical Texas winemakers from calling their product “Napa Valley wine” under any circumstances.

Efforts to enact the rule date to 2015, when the Napa Valley Vintners brought the issue to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who, along with then-California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, initially proposed the rule to TTB in September 2015.

In turn, the TTB proposed the rule in 2016, eliciting both widespread support and indignation throughout the industry.

Grape growers, winery owners and industry groups across the U.S. argued that consumers deserve to know where a wine’s grapes come from regardless of where the wine is made. Others praised the rule for protecting not only the AVAs’ validity, but also their reputations.

As grape grower Andy Beckstoffer put it to the Register in December 2016, “I’m very concerned about the quality of wine that goes to the consumer with Napa Valley on it and the ability to control that when it’s made in a winery out of state is majorly decreased.”

Others, like David Lecomte, head winemaker at City Winery, which produces a “Napa Valley” wine at its location in New York City, said at the time, “This regulation is really to protect Napa wineries producing Napa wine and not to protect the customer.”

Other groups, including the California Association of Winegrape Growers and the Wine Institute, wrote seeking more time for their members to weigh the issue. Ultimately the agency obliged, extending the deadline for comments to December of that year.

But as the deadline came and went, the rift within the industry persisted. The Wine Institute joined forces with the Napa Valley Vintners, however, and the groups offered an alternative. Their “Joint Proposal” suggested allowing wineries with COLA exemptions to use “Grape Source Information” on their labels instead of AVA names.

The proposal floats the idea that the Grape Source Information could include the name of the county or counties, as well as the state, or states, where the grapes were grown, and the city or state where the wine was finished. Though, if using county names, such as Napa, labels would have to read ‘Napa County, California’ and not ‘Napa Valley,’ which is the name of the AVA here.

Fast forward nearly a year to October 2017 and the TTB reopened the comment period, in part to gauge industry opinions on alternatives like the “Joint Proposal”.

The latest round of comments, submitted in January, reveal an industry still divided.

Addressing the idea to use county and state names, while excluding AVAs, industry groups from areas like Lodi, argue that the alternative offered in the Joint Proposal puts the region at a disadvantage.

As the region includes portions of both San Joaquin and Sacramento counties, the Lodi Winegrape Commission posited in their letter to the TTB that having COLA-exempt out-of-state wineries use either of the county names on a label instead of the Lodi AVA, “…does not effectively denote the Lodi wine region…”

The group further wrote, “Napa and Sonoma, conversely, do not have that problem, as the name of their counties and regions are one and the same…”

Responding to those points, Napa Valley Vintners government relations director Rex Stults said that the NVV’s attorneys at Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty had researched the number of Certificates of Label Approval that came from the Lodi region over the last two years.

According to Stults, the group discovered that from January 2016 to January of this year, there were 1,500 COLAs and COLA exemptions with Lodi identified as the wine’s appellation. Of those 1,500, he said, only 12, or 0.8 percent of all wines designated with the Lodi appellation over the last two years, would be affected by the rule.

“They’re going to bat for less than 1 percent of the COLAs from the region,” Stults said. “Is that really worth eroding the integrity of the whole AVA system? We (the NVV) say no.”

Others, like the California Association of Winegrape Growers, in its most recent letter to the agency deemed the issue too complex to be resolved through the traditional channels of notices and comments. The group instead suggested that the TTB start a process of “negotiated rulemaking,” a consensus-based approach of “in-person meetings and face-to-face discussion,” asserting that such a process “would give everyone with a stake in the issues … the chance to reach agreement about the main features of a rule before it is proposed in final form.”

In its letter, the group also asked the TTB to specify how the issue undermines the AVA system and the harm it causes to the industry and consumers, claiming that the shipment of California wine grapes to out-of-state wineries is “significant,” to the supposed tune of $20 million.

Per the suggestion for a process of negotiated rule making, Stults pointed to the original request members of Congress made to the TTB in 2015 asking the agency to close the loophole.

“We think that the TTB acted appropriately to Congress’s request and they should move forward ASAP,” he said.