When I was building our house in Calistoga in 1997, I used to fly into Oakland in the morning and leave during rush hour. The drive took no longer than one hour and 45 minutes. Recently, the same trip took three hours, mostly due to the St. Helena to American Canyon bottlenecks. The Silverado Trail is no longer a relief. Culture-related visits to San Francisco are no longer enjoyable, a symbol of a deteriorating quality of life. The allocation of water resources resulting in rationing and higher rates, the deterioration of our air quality as a result of being stuck in traffic (we had 20 no-burn days in January), the deterioration of our streams and wildlife habitat are all contributing to its steady degradation.
These developments have reached a tipping point in the public conscience as evidenced by the emergence of formidable coalitions from widely diverse segments of society not seen in decades. Current newspaper editorials have taken note.
The problem is that we are still addressing planning issues with 20th-century tools. When traffic lights in Europe are being replaced by the thousands in favor of nonstop driving solutions, it is a bankrupt model to expect an additional traffic light on Highway 29 to mitigate the increased traffic generated by the proposed Davies winery in St. Helena.
When traffic studies in Calistoga consider the effects of 300 more hotel rooms and 250 new restaurant seats barely 1 mile each way, has anyone bothered to factor in the traffic they generate on Main Street in St. Helena? The traffic of hundreds more of their employees generate all the way to Vallejo? Or the dwindling valley-wide water supply from common sources when individual municipality contracts expire? Or the affordable housing supply necessitated by insufficiently vetted growth?
We are approving increased production capacities to existing and new wineries, which, unless grandfathered, are required to use locally sourced grapes to the tune of 75 percent. Has anyone compared the available grape supply before approving increased production projects? Do we keep approving hillside vineyards to save face in supply/production disparities?
There is widespread belief that a lot of Napa Valley wine is adulterated. In contrast to the valley’s spotty enforcement and slap-on-the-wrist monetary penalties, auditing and enforcement in the iconic wine regions of the world are meticulous, carrying severe penalties, including prison time. By exposing scandals — Bordeaux 1998, Champagne 2005, Brunello 2008 — they protect their brands that it took generations to build. Lax Napa enforcement and loose policies are directly threatening the very integrity of our brand.
We are led to believe that the wine business has changed and that wineries are compelled to embrace direct sales models to survive.
But traditional marketing models have not disappeared, direct sales only help increase profits and the Internet has come to their aid. For the few who cry wolf there are plenty of buyers to pick them up if they fail and hundreds of high-quality, profitable wineries not blinded by greed impervious to the damage it inflicts. There is nothing wrong with increased profits, but the assumption that “survival” requires crowded tasting rooms, corporate events, parties and weddings, is false. Look at Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, our competitors!
I first met John Shafer in the early 1980s. He was pouring wine from a tiny folding table at a trade event in Los Angeles, but for many new winery owners, traveling and pouring wine in distant cities has become inconvenient marketing work. Much easier to bring customers here and spread the damage. Yet, this is the 21st-century model we are being sold.
The question is not whether the Winery Definition Ordinance needs “updating to meet 21st century realities;” it is what the wide-reaching effects of any additional specific uses wineries seek, including quality of life. The same rigorous examination applies to the new mega-tourist accommodations. The mantra that growth in the Napa Valley creates jobs is only a positive one if those jobs do not increase the overall public cost by more than what they contribute.
What if we required increased production facilities to locate where the workforce lives, thus minimizing commutes? What if we required resorts to actually build the affordable housing needs they generate rather than pay laughable in-lieu fees per unit sticking the general public with double their cost? What if we seriously explored public transit solutions? No one believed a Vine Trail from Vallejo to Calistoga had a chance, and yet look at it!
We now have the tools to cast a much wider, 21st-century net for Environmental Impact Reports or eventually communities will be pitched against each other competing for resources and forced to deal with burdens imposed across each other leading to patchwork solutions.
We need leadership not dazed by money from sales and transit occupancy taxes regardless of the damage. This is a slippery symbiosis. It is time for the bank bailout model of socializing the damage while privatizing the profits whereby the costs of the overused infrastructure, environmental damage, affordable housing are pushed on to the public for the benefit of the few to stop.
It is because the quality of life over the past 15 years is deteriorating that the public is feeling threatened, is losing confidence and is organizing.
George Caloyannidis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus from the School of Architecture, University of Southern California.