Built in 1846 in between St. Helena and Calistoga, the Bale Grist Mill is a staple of any tour of historic Napa Valley, with tourists and residents alike flocking to the mill to see grains churned into flour using the same techniques used more than 160 years ago.
But this devotion to history has caused the mill’s operators to bump up against modern county and state health and food safety regulations — the flour and cornmeal ground by the mill can’t be sold, and bags of the products have carried a “not for human consumption” label in the past.
The problem is that during the milling process, grains come in contact with a wooden chute, and state law requires that they not touch “porous surfaces.” But Napa County, the Napa County Parks and Open Space District and the Napa Valley State Parks Association hope to change that in the upcoming legislative session in Sacramento.
“By definition, the mill could never be made to comply with that standard,” said John Woodbury of the parks and open space district.
County staff, the district and the Napa Valley State Parks Association are working on drafting legislation that would give the Bale Grist Mill an exemption from those regulations, allowing the flour or cornmeal to be sold to local high-end restaurants or made into baked goods that could be sold at the mill, or in local farmers’ markets.
They’ll be working with legislative staff of Napa County’s delegation, Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, or State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, next year to get the bill introduced, Woodbury said.
Jeanne Marioni, a volunteer at the mill, said it would be an opportunity to benefit the mill’s operation, which is not-for-profit, and connect residents to an important aspect of the Napa Valley’s history. The mill is the only grist mill still operating in California.
“It’s a tremendous link to who we were in the past,” Marioni said. “If we can stay connected to that through this grain I think it’s a really symbolic thing.”
Marioni said the products are given away currently, with a request for a donation in return, but being able to sell the flour or cornmeal would help provide revenue to keep the mill open and operating.
The parks and open space district and the state parks association took over management and operation of the grist mill and the neighboring Bothe-Napa Valley State Park after the state government threatened to close them during its budget crisis in 2011.
Keeping the mill and park open means having enough revenue to meet expenses, Woodbury said, and selling flour could be a key way to accomplish that.
“We believe there’s nothing wrong with the product coming out of this,” Woodbury said. “All of the high-end restaurants have expressed interest in being able to use this stuff legally.”
Marioni said not being able to sell the flour is “like part of the story we’re not able to complete.”
Napa City Councilman Scott Sedgley, who also volunteers at the mill, said he would support the legislative efforts, and added that the mill is cleaned regularly and the flour and cornmeal is safe to eat. He does so frequently, he said.
“I eat it,” Sedgley said. “I’ve never had a problem with it.”
Sedgley said it’s important to support the mill to make sure it stays open for current and future generations of Napa County residents.
“Anything I could do as an elected official I would certainly do it,” Sedgley said. “I know that most longtime Napans know and visit the mill. It’s just a beautiful, historic, majestic spot.”