You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1

Benham's Gin, inspired by a trip to Spain. 

Napa grand jury alleges $20,000 Tuteur tax problem

The Napa County grand jury filed court papers Thursday ordering the district attorney to initiate legal action against Assessor John Tuteur to recover what it says are about $20,000 in back taxes.

Tuteur learned of the action that afternoon.

“I am happy to have the State Board of Equalization or staff from an assessor’s office in any California county review the challenged assessment,” Tuteur said.

The challenged assessment was done by staff working independently and reviewed by the chief appraiser, Tuteur said. An Assessor’s Office procedure report said this method is used to ensure employee property assessments are done with integrity.

The issue involves property on Green Valley Road that John and Mary Tuteur leased for a cell tower site to Transmission Agency of Northern California from about 1992 through 2016, the court papers said. Cell tower rental income was to be capitalized for property tax assessments.

The Napa County assessor failed to capitalize the rental income correctly from 2008-2015 and the property was under-assessed, the court papers said. In 2016, the assessor discovered the error and attempted to correct the assessment for 2016.

But, the court papers said, the assessor failed to correct the error for 2008-2015. The grand jury says the Tuteurs may owe the county about $20,000 for those tax years, plus interest and any applicable penalties.

Alan Charles Dell’Ario, foreperson of the 2017-18 grand jury, didn’t elaborate while filing the two-page order in Napa County Superior Court. He said the issue came to the grand jury’s attention through a confidential complaint.

District Attorney Allison Haley couldn’t be reached for a comment on Thursday. County Public Information Officer Kristi Jourdan said the District Attorney’s Office contacted the California Attorney General’s Office to ensure transparency and avoid a possible conflict of interest. That means the Attorney General’s Office has taken the place of the county District Attorney’s Office in the matter.

The grand jury is using state Penal Code 932. This law says that, after investigating the books and accounts of county officials, a grand jury “may order” the district attorney to sue to recover money the grand jury deems owed to the county.

The Mendocino County grand jury issued such an order to that county’s district attorney in 2007 to initiate a lawsuit against a former county supervisor who supposedly owed a few thousand dollars in excess travel expenses. The district attorney declined to prosecute.

A 2009-10 Mendocino County grand jury report said the district attorney claimed to have prosecutorial discretion. The grand jury questioned that claim.

Tuteur served as Napa County supervisor between 1973 and 1980. He became assessor in 1987 and is running for reelection as assessor-recorder-county clerk on the June 5 ballot. He was unopposed as of Thursday, with the filing deadline on Friday.

Haley was appointed district attorney by the Napa County Board of Supervisors in late 2016 to succeed retiring District Attorney Gary Lieberstein. She is running for election on the June 5 ballot and was unopposed as of Thursday.

The grand jury operates under the authority of Napa County Superior Court and is to serve a watchdog role regarding local government. It is made up of 19 citizens who are selected annually by the court. Its usual function is to release annual reports on its various investigations and make recommendations to the county and its cities.

In December, the 2017-18 grand jury had a disagreement the county Board of Supervisors. It requested information from the county on whether the county had followed through on recommendations from past grand juries. The Board of Supervisors made the answers public at a meeting, prompting the grand jury to claim a violation of “investigative confidentiality.”

Napa purveyor of heirloom beans drops FedEx due to its NRA ties

Steve Sando, the owner of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food, spends more than half a million dollars each year shipping his heirloom beans to destinations worldwide.

Until Monday, FedEx shipped the lion’s share.

But not anymore.

Sando, who said he was fed up with gun violence, stopped using FedEx as his main shipper.

Sando said he could no longer work with FedEx because it provides discounts to National Rifle Association members.

“The NRA is a really powerful machine that doesn’t allow dialog about gun violence,” said Sando.

Sando, who described his politics as “progressive,” said he doesn’t want his business to be associated with such a group.

This small business owner said he’s always been shocked by the school shootings in the U.S. But after his own son, a New Technology High School student, was part of a lockdown during the Jan. 17 shooting at Starbucks, “it became personal,” said Sando.

Sando said the incident challenged his “‘It couldn’t happen here’ mentality.”

Then, after hearing about how other companies were dropping FedEx because of the shipping discount that FedEx offers NRA members (from 18 to 26 percent), Sando said he’d had enough.

“I was really encouraged” to follow suit, he said.

Sando explained his decision to his FedEx representative and also wrote a letter to the president of FedEx. He said he gave the company one last chance to change its mind, but as of Monday, the NRA member discount remained.

On Feb. 27, FedEx released a statement that read in part:

“FedEx Corporation’s positions on the issues of gun policy and safety differ from those of the National Rifle Association (NRA). FedEx opposes assault rifles being in the hands of civilians.

“FedEx will not deny service or discriminate against any legal entity regardless of their policy positions or political views. The NRA is one of hundreds of organizations in our alliances/association Marketing program whose members receive discounted rates for FedEx shipping. FedEx has never set or changed rates for any of our millions of customers around the world in response to their politics, beliefs or positions on issues.”

“I realize I’m a cup in the ocean,” Sando said regarding FedEx’s revenue. In 2017, the company reported revenue of $15.7 billion.

However, in 2017 Rancho Gordo spent more than $500,000 with FedEx, he said. During the past three to four years that he’s been an exclusive FedEx customer, he’s spent “well over” $1 million on FedEx services.

“FedEx was a huge part of our success last year,” Sando admitted.

He said he loves his FedEx representatives and the local delivery drivers. But, “I just can’t live with” supporting a business that supports the NRA.

Sando doesn’t think it’s too much to ask FedEx to end the NRA member discount.

“Every other company with a hint of a conscience” would do so, he said.

Besides Sando’s decision to change carriers, he said a handful of his own customers called and asked him to stop shipping with FedEx.

Sando also announced his plan to stop using FedEx on his Facebook page.

While the response so far has been 97 percent positive, Sando acknowledged there was always the chance that his idea would backfire.

“My fear was I’d alienate customers,” he admitted. “It could absolutely be the wrong decision. But I have to do the right thing in this case.”

Sando made clear he’s not attacking the Second Amendment. “No one is saying take guns away,” he said.

“A lot of times we feel helpless” about what is happening with gun violence, he said. But, “this is something I can do.”

The switch won’t be easy, he said. “It’s a nightmare.”

His computer system is set up with FedEx pricing and compatible software. He’ll have to retrain his employees and figure out how to work with the UPS computer system.

Such a change may cost him in lost productivity, he said.

“It certainly slows us down,” said Sando. “The bottom line is – we have to do it.”

UPS came on Tuesday for its first pickup, he said.

“I’m serious about this,” Sando said.

Wine Industry
Writer James Conaway paints a harsh portrait of Napa Valley in his latest book

The latest work from a seminal writer on Napa Valley is out, hitting the shelves everywhere and striking a nerve here.

Released this week, James Conaway’s third book on the Napa wine region, “Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity,” marks the author’s latest update on the area’s social history, which he has tracked in two previous books over as many decades.

Those books — the bestselling “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” published in 1990, and its 2002 sequel “The Far Side of Eden” — each told of the shifting shape of Napa Valley at the time and cemented Conaway as a leading chronicler of the region and its vintner denizens who grew the valley into the wine epicenter and destination it is today.

Taking center stage in the latest installment are those who hope to check Napa’s continued development by its iconic industry, driving what Conaway considers to be a new wine country zeitgeist.

“Napa at Last Light” offers an account of a valley increasingly divided, with proponents of development pitted against those bent on preserving an agrarian ideal of Napa that may already be beyond safeguarding.

As Conaway writes, with wine industry development spreading across the county largely unabated, a blend of homegrown citizen groups, as well as conservation-minded winemakers and grape growers, have risen to limit the industry’s advances.

Speaking by phone Tuesday morning, the day of the book’s release, Conaway noted his return to the area several years ago to find that “the citizenry had finally sort of woken up, in a good way.”

That waking is recounted from one chapter of growth struggles to the next, with Conaway relaying his witness to an “anti-corporate reaction among the populous” in Napa Valley today.

“I thought, well, maybe somebody really is going to try to put a lid on this and we’ll just have Napa as it is now. It’s already successful, world-renowned and it still has some of its original character. Why not try to hang on to that and stop this move to ever increase acreage for vines and wineries?”

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster 

"Napa at Last Light" by James Conaway

With the book’s release, that perspective has drawn considerable ire from more than a few individuals and groups within the Napa wine industry that feature prominently in its pages.

Looming large among the development battles detailed in the book and still ongoing today is the controversial Walt Ranch vineyard project, spearheaded by Kathryn and Craig Hall of HALL Wines. The project would see more than 200 acres of vineyard go in among the hills of eastern Napa, and was approved by the county in 2016 amid strong opposition from neighbors. Following lawsuits from opponents, the project’s future is currently being decided in court.

Having read Conaway’s account of the struggle in his book, the Halls offered a statement this week, claiming the work to be “inaccurate in many respects,” though they did not elaborate. The Halls declined to participate or be interviewed by Conaway for the book.

“We have always championed the well-being of our community and we try to put this philosophy into action every day …. More broadly, we believe the Napa wine industry continues to be the national and international model for agricultural and environmental stewardship, and we are proud to be a part of this community,” they said in their release.

Other noted clashes include those between the activists of Citizens’ Voice and the Davies family of Schramsberg Vineyards over construction of the Davies Vineyards tasting room in St. Helena, and the fight between vintner Mike Davis, of Davis Family Estates, and a mix of vintners and citizens over Davis’ plans to develop a vineyard on Howell Mountain near the Dunn-Wildlake Ranch Preserve.

Perhaps the book’s most significant showdown, and one poised to alter the course of modern Napa Valley, is centered on the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative. Created by Napa residents and members of the wine industry, the initiative would sharply curb vineyard development in Napa’s hillsides. Last month it was added to the June 5 ballot as Measure C for Napa voters to have the final word on.

Proponents of the measure include citizens’ groups like Napa Vision 2050, as well as wine industry members like Andy Beckstoffer and Randy Dunn, each of whom appear at length in “Napa at Last Light” – Dunn in the creation of the Wildlake Preserve and Beckstoffer in an effort to curtail development by Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena.

Authors of the initiative and Napa Vision 2050 leaders Jim Wilson and Mike Hackett each declined to comment on Conaway’s account of their efforts, as they had not read the book as of this week.

Meanwhile, response from leadership groups of both the county and the wine industry, including the county Board of Supervisors, the Napa Valley Vintners, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Napa County Farm Bureau, has been largely negative, as Conaway paints each organization as being aligned with development interests and seeking to impede the oak woodlands initiative.

Though he noted the groups’ significant roles in establishing the county’s Winery Definition Ordinance in the 1980s, a focus of his first book, Conaway asserted that in the case of the current initiative, the groups appear to have changed course.

“And now, because the memberships themselves have become dominated in some cases by the big money in the county,” Conaway said this week, “they have in this particular fight, to my mind, diverged from what they used to represent.”

The Napa Valley Grapegrowers declined to comment for this article, while the Napa Valley Vintners discredited the book in a statement, positing that Conaway’s “highly embellished tales about Napa Valley, while entertaining, are not accurate accounts of real events.”

Members of the Napa County Farm Bureau had not yet read the book, policy director Ryan Klobas wrote in an email this week. However, he urged that “readers shouldn’t mistake the historical agricultural protections such as the Napa Ag Preserve with the desire by some, such as the proponents of Measure C, to limit vineyard development while allowing for hard-scape construction of housing, wineries, and other structures in the hillsides.”

As for the Board of Supervisors, referred to in the book as “the recognized graveyard of conservation dreams,” former chair Alfredo Pedroza refuted Conaway’s portrayal of him and the board in a phone interview this week.

“I think Mr. Conaway chose to rather focus on his own predetermined story that he wanted to write and what came out I think was a product that was more fiction rather than fact,” Pedroza said, adding “a lot of the claims that he makes about the county’s involvement in the oak woodland initiative were not true, my involvement in the oak woodland initiative, were not true.”

Conaway denied having a preset narrative in mind when approaching the project.

“I did not have an agenda when I wrote this book,” he said. “People say I had or have an agenda; that isn’t true. I reported what was going on from the community’s point of view for a change, instead of from the wineries’ point of view. And they’re very unhappy about it.”

Vintner David Graves, a co-founder of Saintsbury winery, noted several of what he called factual errors in the book, including a mention of geographical origin rules, a conflation of referendums and initiatives and an incorrectly identified chair of the General Plan Steering Committee, among others.

Graves, who stressed he is now neither a supporter nor an opponent of the oak woodlands initiative, said his critique was not based on Conaway’s support of the initiative.

Conaway said that he did not recognize some of Graves’ references to errors in the book. “There are mistakes in any book that has as much stuff in it as this one does,” he offered, and noted that some mistakes had already been corrected in the electronic edition of the book and would be corrected in the next print edition.

After the strong response to the book, Conaway said he is unsure whether this will be his last chronicle of Napa Valley. Per the prospect of another book, he said, “Six weeks ago I would have said ‘no.’ But something is being revealed here, with the reaction to this book that I hadn’t expected. And who knows? There are a million stories in the naked vineyard.”

As for struggles lying before Napa in the near and distant future, Conaway offered a final thought.

“There’s never been a civilization really – or a rural setting that was near a city or a huge community — that was able to resist the spread of real estate development and other sorts of development, to take it over and change it into something that is no longer rural,” he said. “Napa still has a chance to do that.”

“The only thing that Napa can do – I hate to say, but it’s a kind of un-American thing – Napa could say ‘no.’”

Register file photo 


Proposed large-scale apartment project raises concerns in American Canyon

Plans to build the largest apartment complex in American Canyon have surfaced, much to the chagrin of those who own Canyon Ridge Apartments, which opened just last year.

The new project — dubbed Canyon Crossings in paperwork filed with the American Canyon Planning Commission — would be constructed right next door to Canyon Ridge, located east of Highway 29 and north of the Napa Junction Shopping Center.

Canyon Crossings with 272 apartments would be nearly twice as large as Canyon Ridge, which has 148 units.

It would also eclipse the city’s largest apartment complex in size — The Lodge with 216 units — located just south of Canyon Ridge.

The Reliant Group, owner, developer and manager of Canyon Ridge, raised objections to the new project with the Planning Commission on Feb. 22.

“I don’t want to come across as anti-development,” said Chris Flynn, director of asset management for Reliant. “We are developers, we own real estate, this is how we make a living. But I think the project as proposed,” he added, “feels a little bit overbearing upon the project we’ve already built.”

Referring to the design showing 12 three-story buildings positioned just north of Canyon Ridge, Flynn said, “All those buildings really encroach upon our buildings.”

“These buildings feel very large, they feel very dense, they feel very on top of us,” he said. “We feel a little encircled by this project as proposed here.”

Planning commissioners took no action on the proposed project at the hearing, which served as an opportunity for them and the public to get a first look at Canyon Crossings.

Chairman Eric Altman noted that the applicant, Branagh Development, has only filed a pre-application at this point, meaning the project is still in the very early stages.

Commissioners raised their own concerns with Canyon Crossings.

Altman and Commissioner Crystal Mallare asked if a mixed-use element could be added to the project, such as a convenience store, so residents have a retail option on site.

Branagh Development should “see if that would pencil out” economically for them, said Altman.

The chairman also asked the Branagh representative, Lisa Vilhauer, to consider turning one or two buildings into condos — something American Canyon has little of, he said.

“If you look at this community, it is probably the single biggest missing piece” in the housing stock, Altman said. Condos are an attractive option for either “empty nesters who want to downsize from their large homes” or first-time home buyers looking to get established in the housing market, according to Altman.

Vilhauer responded: “The economics for a large condominium project don’t work” because of land prices, construction costs and sale pricing of condos.

She also told the commission that their research shows the city could use more rental housing for residents, noting that Canyon Ridge is largely filled up.

“We do feel there is a need for multi-family apartments in American Canyon,” she said.

Flynn acknowledged that Canyon Ridge has a low occupancy rate of 8 percent. But, he added, putting in 272 units “is probably a bigger project than is needed for this area.”

Vilhauer said of the 272 proposed apartments, 25 percent would be one-bedroom, 50 percent two-bedroom, and 25 percent three-bedroom.

Canyon Ridge has only one- and two-bedroom units, though Flynn said when they first proposed their project, their design included three-bedroom apartments, but the Planning Commission discouraged this option.

“A thing we got beat up for with our development was we wanted to have three-bedroom units,” Flynn said. “They’re desirable, but there seems to be an issue of capacity with the schools, what they can handle” with new students coming in.

The parcel for Canyon Crossings is 15 acres in size, situated on land owned by Union Pacific Railroad. Branagh intends to purchase the property if they go through with the development, Vilhauer said.

But a chunk of the 15 acres is unusable for housing for two reasons. Some of it is wetlands, and some falls within the Napa County Airport’s “D Zone” that prohibits new residential developments.

The 12 three-story apartment buildings would fit on the remaining portion of the 15 acres, which was why Flynn and others raised the issue of “density” with the project.

Vincent “Buzz” Butler with Lake Street Ventures, which built the Napa Junction Retail Center and The Lodge, said cramming so many units in the remaining available space was “the biggest problem” with Canyon Crossings.

Butler, however, said he supports the idea of more apartments on the proposed site.