Oral histories tell the story of the Ag Preserve

2012-02-27T00:00:00Z 2012-03-28T17:25:56Z Oral histories tell the story of the Ag PreserveSASHA PAULSEN Napa Valley Register
February 27, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Back when Napa County was drunk on growth, the Napa Register’s 1963 centennial edition predicted that the population of Napa County — 65,890 in 1960 — would explode to 250,000 in 2000 and a half million by 2010. The city of Napa, then around 22,000, would grow to 378,000.

In fact, nothing of the sort happened. The county’s population in 2010 was only 136,484, a quarter of what had been predicted. Napa grew to almost 77,000 in 2010, not 378,000.

What deflated such grandiose population predictions? Dual movements to preserve agriculture and the intimate scale of Napa Valley cities combined to derail fast-growth estimates, according to historians.

Of vital importance was Napa County creating the first Agricultural Preserve in the United States. This story is recounted by 12 people in the newly published “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve.”

In part because of the Ag Preserve, vineyards, not houses, have replaced most of the orchards and pastures that existed in the early 1960s and wineries have mushroomed from a handful in 1963 to more than 400 today.

The Ag Preserve was pushed by a group of residents who, concerned that the Napa Valley could vanish into a metropolis of high-rises and highways, set out to restrict urbanization of the county’s farmlands. County supervisors put the Ag Preserve into law in 1968.

This local ordinance established agriculture and open space as the “best use” for much of the land in Napa County. The Ag Preserve designated more than 438,000 acres as agricultural preserve or watershed protection lands. It became the underpinning of the Napa Valley’s rise to world renown for its wines.   

The Ag Preserve, however, did not happen without a fierce battle within the community. The story of this battle is told in “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve,” a three-year effort financed by the Jack L. Davies Napa Valley Agricultural Land Preservation Fund to document the Ag Preserve movement.

Rue Ziegler, an anthropologist and professor at the University of San Francisco, interviewed a dozen key people. They included:

• George Abate, Napa County tax assessor in 1968

• Dewey Andersen, Napa County supervisor in 1968

• Volker Eisele, grapegrower, vintner and community leader

• James Hickey, Napa County planning director 1970-1989

• Mervin Lernhart, Napa County Planning Commission legal advisor in 1968

• Thomas May, grape grower and community leader

• Donald McFarland, Napa County planning commissioner in 1968

• Virginia Simms, past member of county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors

• John Tuteur, past member of Board of Supervisors

• Mel Varrelman, past member of Board of Supervisors

• Warren Winiarski, grape grower, vintner, community leader

• Pierce Carson, a Register staff writer who then covered county government.

“It was emotional, very emotional,” Winiarski says of the turmoil created by the struggle to create the preserve. “You hear stories of people who were on different sides and they never talked to each other again after this.”

 Transcriptions of the interviews describe not only the political battles of 1968 but their outlooks for the future of the Ag Preserve.

“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Varrelman notes in one passage. “There’s going to always be people who want to expand the borders of cities, and there’s always going to be people who want to expand into the unincorporated area for housing.”

Residents gathered at Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars earlier this month to celebrate the publication of the “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve.”

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(9) Comments

  1. glenroy
    Report Abuse
    glenroy - February 27, 2012 9:21 am
    The battle wasn’t whether or not to preserve ag, at least not from a rancher perspective, the battle was over parcel size and grandfathering existing splits that had been on county books for decades. This was to allow passing on to the next generation or selling a piece to pay spiraling land taxes.

    One side calmed the proposed ag preserve would reduce water use compared to existing use livestock and prunes. Today we use more ag water in a month than we did in a year, south of St Helena area drills 800' for a trickle of water that was abundant and stable at 80'....Coombsville is way over drafted.

    Like most political issues a whole lot of rhetoric was flying…ultimately those being forced out of business or off their land were right, the valley turned into a tourist jam, and was consumed by the Hollywood crowd. (read liberals)

    Therein the saying…’we remember when this Valley was truly World Class.’
  2. jimmie
    Report Abuse
    jimmie - February 27, 2012 10:55 am
    The Ag Preserve saved Napa. Mr. Glenroy, I can't believe that you can't see how lucky we are here. The world has changed all around us and we have maintained our blessings, for the most part, in the face of extreme development pressure. If this were Modoc County, I could see your point but 1 hour from downtown San Francisco is a bit different. I am SOOOO grateful for the visionaries that helped preserve our land from over-development, despite the challenges landowners face of not being able to sell off a parcel here and there to get some quick cash.
  3. wendy
    Report Abuse
    wendy - February 27, 2012 3:26 pm
    I can't believe I agree with Glenroy. I have no problem with preserving the Ag land. (why couldn't they have done that with zoning laws?) I do have a problem with all the other stuff that came along with it. IMO, it was mostly the "haves" keeping their privileges. Only they get to keep their super nice tasting rooms, have weddings, etc. I love living here, but my experience from living here for 12 years has been that Napa is all about "I got mine." The richest of the valley get away with whatever they want, and the little guy is screwed. This valley is all about the 1%.
  4. napablogger
    Report Abuse
    napablogger - February 27, 2012 5:14 pm
    There have been so many varying impacts, Glenroy part of the water issue is that so many more acres were planted to vineyards than probably expected at that time. Also St Helena uses up to 500 acre feet of ground water a year, which contributes to the problem there.

    Wendy, I am interested in what your specific beef is, what for the 99% would you like to see happen?

    I think the ag preserve is one of the smartest and best uses of land in US history. Yes we can think up criticisms, but it is a small place and it can't be everything to anyone that wants it to be.

    Truthfully, the fight to continue goes on and will go on, because we live in an environment where development is also seen as an automatic good and the attempts to overdevelop are never ending. Everyone thinks, but what I want is ok, I just want to leave a parcel for my kids, or we need one hotel, or golf course, for jobs, etc. But if everyone did that the ag preserve would be over.
  5. garretth37
    Report Abuse
    garretth37 - February 27, 2012 7:39 pm
    In 1963, wasn't Napa different, didn't the city have more of a blue collar workforce, we had skilled labour. We had lot more work, jobs, much more of different workforce. Mare Island, Kaiser, Pipe and etc, jobs went away in the 60's, 70's, 80's and the later years. How can industry grow when you do have room to expand and add workers. This is why California is losing jobs, the tax is a killer, but no one to grow is the icing on the cake. The other thing I might add which is Bel Aire Shopping Center still remains in a 1963 footprint. Auto Row on Soscol is in a 60's footprint, downtown suffered from the flight of businesses, not much room to expand.
  6. wendy
    Report Abuse
    wendy - February 27, 2012 10:16 pm
    Napa blogger: I think I was pretty clear in my statement. There is almost NOWHERE to have a wedding in this county. Didn't the ag preserve grandfather in all the wealthy "already haves" all their big tasting rooms and event rights, giving them the monopoly on weddings and all other events, and giving them a leg up over any new winery. As a result, you have to go somewhere else to have your wedding because any place here is just too expensive. If more wineries could have events, there would be a lot more revenue coming in to this valley in general. It would be easier for smaller, newer wineries to survive. (like the one where my husband works)

    The 1% is able to break the law and just factor in the fines. It's just not a level playing field; What happened to the Republicans "free market" ideals? I think the ag preserve is doomed anyway because of American Canyon. They don't give a crap about the quality of life for the people upvalley. There's a lot of voters there
  7. garretth37
    Report Abuse
    garretth37 - February 28, 2012 2:14 pm
    More weddings, events, shows, and meetings. Sport, business, lesiure and art gathering. Due to the Ag law, the industry changed in Napa, more tourist and wine related business. So we must find ways to plan and grow this new industry that brings so many visitors, but at the same time grow for the needs of the residents of the City of Napa, American Canyon and all the other cities.
  8. napablogger
    Report Abuse
    napablogger - February 28, 2012 3:10 pm
    Wendy, you can do weddings anywhere but wineries, every hotel, Meadowood, Auberge, all kinds of places. Most communities don't have wineries so what are we really missing with that? Not much. There are a few, less than five wineries that can do weddings but the only one I know of that does a lot of them is Sattui.

    When I ran for Sup I asked a lot of them if they would do weddings if it were legal and almost all of them said no. They want to sell wine, not do weddings.

    The wineries are supposed to be farming related. Commercial development is what the threat to the ag preserve is, and the further you get away from farming by adding all these commercial operations, the bigger the threat. If your husband's business is about doing weddings and parties, etc, just open inside city limits somewhere away from farm zoning, problem solved.

    If we don't keep farming areas for farming the ag preserve is over.


  9. napablogger
    Report Abuse
    napablogger - February 28, 2012 5:49 pm
    Wendy, and to continue, Sattui would love to be able to do wineries at the Castle, but he too cannot due to ag laws.ly

    I agree with you about the 1%, but would go the other way--the wineries that are grandfathered in to do more than newer ones should be gradually cut back, not the other way. We have 450 brick and mortar wineries now, and we cannot take much more without overwhelming ourselves.

    My sense is that where we have unemployment is where Garreth mentions, blue collar work, especially now construction work due to the housing recession.
Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick