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The third- and fourth-grade classes of St. John’s Catholic School stopped by the Napa Valley Register on Jan. 30 to say ‘Thank You’ for supporting their school. A fun part of Catholic Schools Week is visiting our neighbors and local businesses.

Need a scorecard of key players in Napa's land use battles? Here it is

So many local groups have waded into the fray over proposed, stronger Napa County watershed and tree protections that you need a scorecard to know who’s who.

The roll call of groups can be head-spinning. They include Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Winegrowers of Napa County, Napa Valley Vintners, Coalition Napa Valley, Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture and Napa Vision 2050.

These names might seem like a blur of Napa-this and wine-that. How much simpler things would be if only two groups existed – one saying stronger environmental laws are needed to safeguard reservoirs and combat global warming and the other saying that the wrong upgrades could unnecessarily hurt agriculture.

But one reason various groups formed over the decades is Napa County’s controversial issues have resulted in a range of responses, a gradation of views.

“We represent 553 wineries, which is pretty much every winery,” said Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners. “That’s tremendous, but it also has its challenges. With 553 wineries come perhaps 553 different opinions.”

That can lead to new groups being formed to push certain viewpoints further than Napa Valley Vintners or another established, larger group might go.

Plus, not everyone fits into every group. A grape grower may or may not also be a vintner, which involves making wine.

“To become a member of one of these organizations, you would naturally find where your niche is,” Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said. “Each industry organization really specializes in unique things.”

Some people belong to several groups.

“There’s a lot of cross pollination,” Klobas said.

Stults said Napa Valley Vintners has members who are part of Coalition Napa Valley and members who are part of the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture. Those two latter groups have different views of the county’s proposed watershed laws.

Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture provided an outlet for those who favored last year’s unsuccessful Measure C watershed and oak protection ballot initiative. The Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County, Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Valley Grapegrowers opposed the measure.

“We realized there’s a split in the wine industry,” Growers/Vintners spokesperson and Measure C co-author Mike Hackett said.

Napa Vision 2050 is in a class by itself. It isn’t a wine industry group, but rather a coalition of community and environmental groups.

Here is a look at various groups that want a voice in shaping the future of wine country. While possibly exhausting, the list is not exhaustive.

Napa County Farm Bureau

Farm bureaus began forming around 1914. They were required before the University of California would provide farm advisers to a county, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Napa County’s version celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. It has more than 700 farmers and ranchers as members. Its stated goal is to “is to ensure the right political, social, and economic climate for the continuation of agriculture.”

“Our niche is representing all forms of agriculture,” Klobas said. “And we’re the largest policy organization in Napa Valley that represents agriculture. We have resources that stretch from Sacramento to Washington, D.C.”

Anybody can join the Farm Bureau. But to be on the board of directors, a person must work in agriculture.

Klobas at the Feb. 20 Planning Commission meeting warned the county against going too far in strengthening already-strong conservation laws.

“This is sweeping, landmark legislation, which if it becomes more restrictive, will kill agriculture in Napa County for future generations, period,” he said. “There’s no way around it.”

Napa Valley Vintners

The Napa Valley Vintners Association formed in 1944, with famed vintners Louis Martini and John Daniel among the leaders. Among its early causes was securing an experimental farm near Oakville for the University of California.

“In order to be a member of Napa Valley Vintners, you need to make wine in the Napa Valley on a commercial basis,” Stults said.

About 80 percent of the group’s members also grow grapes.

The group has more than 500 members. Among its listed goals are to provide leadership to solve community and industry issues and to champion Napa Valley “as the world’s premier wine region.”

“I think we have a track record of coming up with positions over the years that are consensus-driven and usually kind of moderate,” Stults said. “Oftentimes the (county) Board of Supervisors, it would appear, has felt comfortable with those positions.”

Stults told the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 29 that Napa Valley Vintners supports the county’s transparent, public process to look at the watershed issue. Having the elected supervisors take up the matter is better than doing it by initiative, he said.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers

The Napa Valley Grape Growers Association held its first meeting on May 20, 1975 in St. Helena. More than 300 people attended.

“It has got to be the biggest farm meeting ever held in the county,” co-organizer Ren Harris told the Napa Register that year. “I think we’ve got a farm organization going for us, for sure.”

Organizers said the group would tackle grower concerns in the areas of pricing, taxes, quality, appellation controls, pesticides and market development. When grape prices fell that summer, the group maintained that wine sales were healthier than vintners seemed to indicate.

Today, Napa Valley Grapegrowers represents more than 700 growers. Its stated mission: “To preserve and promote Napa Valley’s world-class vineyards.”

Molly Moran Williams of the group addressed the Planning Commission on Feb. 20 about the county’s proposed, stronger watershed and tree protection laws. She called the county’s record with existing laws a huge success.

Napa County is a haven for wildlife, biodiversity and sensitive species. Oak woodlands cover 33 percent of the county, chaparral and scrub 21 percent, grasslands 11 percent and vineyards 9 percent. The county over 13 years has seen forests decrease by only 1.2 percent, with a modest growth in vineyards.

“I think a lot of the conversation going on right now has to do with the fear about what could happen to this county,” she said. “But this (success) is what is happening in the county.”

Winegrowers of Napa County

The Winegrowers roots extend back to 1989 with Jack Cakebread’s Breakfast Club, Executive Director Michelle Benvenuto said. Various wine industry figures met in the morning and discussed what was going on in the valley, such as the proposed winery definition ordinance.

Today, the group has 20 members, among them Cakebread Cellars, HALL Wines, Michael Mondavi Family Estate, Pina Vineyard Management and Silverado Premium Properties.

“Our membership is composed of grape growers, wineries and vineyard management,” Benvenuto said. “It is a diverse group. It’s not strictly grape growers or strictly wineries.”

The group’s mission statement mentions promoting sustainable agriculture as the highest and best use of the county’s natural resources. Benvenuto can be seen at virtually every county Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meeting.

Benvenuto described a link between successful agriculture and protecting the environment. Agriculture is what has kept Napa Valley from being developed like the Santa Clara valley, she said.

The group in a letter to Napa County said the county has not provided adequate notice to property owners who will be affected by the proposed, stronger protections for watersheds and trees.

Napa Vision 2050

A dozen local citizen and environmental groups in early 2015 decided to merge their voices on important issues and speak as Vision 2050. From the Get a Grip on Growth to the local Sierra Club to the Mount Veeder Stewardship Council to Save Rural Angwin, they would team up.

Since then, Vision 2050 has been visible on a number of issues. For example, it opposed the Syar quarry expansion. It opposed the Walt Ranch vineyard project in the mountains between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa. It called attention to high local cancer rates.

Vision 2050’s view on the proposed, stronger watershed and tree protections is clear. President Charlotte Williams on Jan. 29 told the Board of Supervisors “to stop the dithering, the finger-pointing and the off-loading of responsibility.”

“Please enact the most stringent environmental protection policies and ordinances as possible,” Williams said. “I encourage you to be leaders who work for the greater good.”

Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture

This group emerged into the public spotlight last year favoring stronger watershed protections. Among the 13 members on its executive committee are Andy Beckstoffer—who helped found Napa Valley Grapegrowers 44 years ago—Warren Winiarski of Arcadia Vineyards, Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards and Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards.

The group supported Measure C, the controversial watershed and oak protection initiative that narrowly failed to pass on the June 2018 ballot. In contrast, Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Vintners, Winegrowers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers opposed the measure.

Hackett said some in the wine industry are more interested in development and some are more interested in sustainability. Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture members “speak from their hearts, not from their wallets,” he said.

Coalition Napa Valley

This group was started last year. Among its members are Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, Dario Sattui of Castello di Amorosa, Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards, Ryan Waugh of Waugh Family Wines and Julie Arbuckle of Anthem Winery.

A vision paper issued by the group said the county is too focused on winery use permit compliance issues when it should be focused on sustaining, growing and improving its only economic engine.

“Somehow anti-winery vitriol and hyperbole has taken control of the narrative about the greatest wine producing valley in the world, ignoring the singular importance of this industry to the local job market, schools, housing and tax revenues supporting our unique wine country lifestyle,” the paper said.

Coalition Napa Valley recently sent a joint letter to the county with the Farm Bureau and Winegrowers saying that current county conservation regulations are successful. Changes should be based on science and data, not political pressure.

Save the Family Farm

This group announced its existence at the Dec. 18 Board of Supervisors meeting. It is made up of people involved with small farming operations who want the county to keep them in mind when making laws.

John Bonick owns eight acres and grows grapes. He said at that meeting that, perhaps unintentionally, the advantages seem to have gone to the large wine producers in Napa County.

“We just want you to know there’s a crisis for small family farms,” Bonick told supervisors.

Premiere auction raises nearly $3.7 million for Napa Valley Vintners

ST. HELENA — For a few hours Saturday, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone became the center of gravity for Napa wine, with the Premiere Napa Valley live auction drawing winemakers throughout the valley and bidders throughout the world into the same room.

In its 23rd year, Premiere, the wine industry’s annual “homecoming”, brought more than 1,200 members of the wine trade to the valley for a week of events that culminated in Saturday’s main event, the wine futures auction.

The once-a-year auction itself caters to trade members hoping to own rarified wines made in small amounts specifically for Premiere. Bidders include retailers, distributors, restaurateurs, smaller wine shops; “It’s a little bit of everything,” said winemaker Aaron Pott, chair of the 2019 Premiere steering board.

One hundred and eighty-six Napa producers supplied this year’s wines in lots of five, 10 or 20 cases that, for the most part, are still aging in barrels and will be for months to come.

Proceeds from the auction ultimately fund the Napa Valley Vintners trade group of the local wine industry. Last year’s auction raised over $4 million for the group, with the highest single bid coming in at $110,000 for a 20-case lot of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon.

On Saturday, the same size lot from Silver Oak reeled in a $140,000 bid, one of the largest, if not the largest of the day. At 12 bottles per case, the cost of each Silver Oak bottle came to about $583.

With Cabernet Sauvignon from 2017 making up the vast majority of this year’s lots, the event also marked a debut of sorts for the wines of a growing season punctuated by excess rain, a bout of hail, a Labor Day heat spike and finally the 2017 North Bay fires.

The Napa Valley Vintners at the time reported that almost 90 percent of Napa’s grapes were harvested before the fires began. Still, speculation swirled around the impact the fires and their ensuing smoke might have on the quality of the year’s wines.

“So much of the grapes were already picked by the time the fires arrived anyway,” Pott reiterated earlier this week. “So I don’t think we’re going to see any lots on Saturday that are going to show any fire characteristics, but we’ll see.”

Winemakers spoke kindly of the vintage during the walk-around barrel tasting held Saturday morning ahead of the live auction at the CIA Greystone.

“What I’ve tasted has been really good,” Pott said of the other lots on Saturday. “It’s surprising because it’s a very hot vintage,” he said. “It’s good to see a lot of nice wines that aren’t pruny or dehydrated.”

“It was a great year,” said winemaker Steve Matthiasson. “It had some pitfalls toward the end you had to work with. Luckily the fires didn’t affect us. I really enjoyed the vintage actually.”

For his lot of 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Matthiasson put the spotlight on his Phoenix Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District, a site that yields “a very rustic, old school Napa Cab,” he said.

While still aging, the wine today is aromatic, focused and bright, he said. “When you think Napa Cab, ‘refreshing’ isn’t always the first word that you think of. But this is a refreshing Napa Cab.”

For the most part, Premiere lots are fashioned according to the whims of their winemakers, Pott said earlier this week.

“They generally choose things that are more to their taste or more to their liking, so each lot is totally unique and says a lot more about the vineyard, says a lot more about the winemaker, than some of their normal lots.”

“It’s kind of a real personal time,” Pott added. “And the winemakers, as a group, recognize the other winemakers’ talents and it’s a chance for us to show off a little bit in that way.”

Pott served as winemaker of the lots for his own Pott Wine label, as well as those from Seven Stones, Somnium and Saint Helena Winery. The lot for Pott Wine, a 2017 Cabernet Franc from Pott’s estate vineyard, Chateauneuf-du-Pott on Mt. Veeder, ultimately sold for $35,000 in the live auction. During the 2017 fires, Pott nearly lost both his vineyard and winery, he said, adding that with “incredible luck” all of his grapes were picked before the fires began.

Apart from Pott’s Cabernet Franc, a handful of less typical wines dotted the sea of Cabernet Sauvignon at Saturday’s barrel tasting.

With a reputation built on Cabernet Franc, the father-son winemaking team of John and Reed Skupny this year offered up the only Chenin Blanc ever made for Premiere from their winery, Lang & Reed Wine Company. Once the most planted white winegrape in Napa, the Chenin Blanc for the Skupnys’ lot came from one of only 17 remaining acres in the county. That total is soon to be 16 acres, John Skupny said, with his wine’s source vineyard set to be pulled this spring.

Chenin Blanc tends to be reticent while in barrel, Skupny said, and once bottled, “for the first month it’ll taste like water. It just sort of shuts down.”

With about five or six months’ time however, the wine’s honeycomb, melon and waxy characteristics will begin to come through.

“Chenin has a capacity to really slake a thirst, but done in a different fashion it can age really well.”

But perhaps the day’s best example for ageability was the 5-case lot of 1998 J. Schram from Schramsberg Vineyards, which spent 20 years in the winery’s Calistoga caves.

Schramsberg owner Hugh Davies ran out of sample bottles to pour during the barrel tasting. “I think that the sparkling (wine) in a sea of Cabernet, people are wanting to drink it more than the average Cabernet,” Davies said.

Sourced from sites across the Carneros, the wine was bottled in the spring of 1999. Since Premiere began, the winery has set aside older vintages to be used for the event, Davies said.

“It’s been a nice way to give a little bit of shine to our program,” he said, “where people come into a room like this and there are all these Cabernets.”

At 20 years old, the wine’s original tart flavors had opened to the toasted, nutty notes and creamy texture older sparkling wines are given to.

“The whole world doesn’t even know it,” Davies said. “’20-year-old sparkling is a good thing?’ So some enthusiasts are definitely already on board, and granted, the people that would come to Premiere Napa are real wine enthusiasts, so they get a little bit giddy about it.”

In the end, the 60 Schramsberg bottles sold for $24,000, while all told, Saturday’s auction brought in nearly $3.7 million for the Vintners.

Napa County officials receptive to ambitious plan to promote Bay Area housing

A Bay Area plan to address the region’s affordable housing problems proposes everything from rent caps to new taxes and fees that would raise $1.5 billion annually to housing-friendly zoning near mass transit hubs.

That’s all included in the CASA Compact. The undertaking’s official name is CASA Committee to House the Bay Area. The capitalized Spanish word for “house” used in the name is not an acronym.

On Wednesday, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors heard a presentation on CASA, which describes itself as “a 15-year emergency policy package.”

For the most part, the mayors and county supervisors on the NVTA Board were open to the CASA approach with some reservations. That’s in contrast to some communities where elected officials are more vocal about possibly losing a measure of local control.

“I think that just speaks volumes of us and the community, that we’re trying to step up,” county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said. “We want to retain local control, which is what shapes our community. But we are also responding to a crisis.”

CASA is the result of 18 months of meetings convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments. Signers range from MTC and ABAG to BART to Google to San Francisco to MidPen Housing.

The CASA Compact has three pillars – productivity, preservation and protection of housing.

One goal is to increase housing construction. CASA proposes that communities offer streamlined approvals for projects that meet certain affordability criteria.

Another housing-creating idea is to establish through state legislation minimum zoning standards near high-frequency mass transit stops. For example, residential uses up to 36 feet tall would be allowed within a half-mile of bus stops with at least 15-minute headways during peak periods and 30-minute headways on weekends.

Rebecca Long of MTC said the requested state legislation to establish minimum zoning near mass transit stops wouldn’t affect Napa County because local bus service doesn’t meet the frequency standards.

A Bay Area-wide rent cap to limit annual rent increases could be established. Landlords could raise a tenant’s rent by no more than the Consumer Price Index increase plus 5 percent in any one year.

“Rent cap is going to be a controversial one,” Long said.

CASA calls for rent assistance and for legal representation for tenants facing eviction proceedings. It seeks to remove regulatory barriers to accessory dwelling units in all Bay Area communities. It seeks to make surplus public land available for housing regardless of zoning, with such exceptions as parks.

About $1.5 billion could be raised annually for CASA programs from such potential sources as a regional quarter-cent sales tax, a vacant homes tax, a parcel tax, a commercial linkage fee charged to developers and a head tax levied on employers.

“What you see here are the options CASA felt were appropriate to be discussed,” Long told the NVTA Board.

The goal is to put funding measures on the ballot in 2020, she said.

Spending the money and coordinating the CASA Compact would be a new agency called the Regional Housing Enterprise established by the state. It would not be a regulatory or enforcement agency.

After Long’s presentation, local mayors and supervisors discussed the CASA Compact. St. Helena Mayor Geoff Ellsworth said he attended a League of California Cities meeting where some expressed concern about CASA affecting local control.

“I’ve been making the rounds the last two months, with some of my colleagues, having a lot of meetings like this … we’re definitely listening to all of this,” Long responded. “To the extent there are really specific ideas or objections or new contributions, we’re listening.”

Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Los Altos and Campbell are among cities that have expressed serious concerns about CASA, such as that it is too much of a one-size-fits-all approach. But the proposals received a more positive reception at the NVTA meeting.

American Canyon Mayor Leon Garcia said much of the CASA Compact is talking points for the state Legislature to consider.

“Local control certainly is paramount,” Garcia said. “But then, just saying ‘no’ to housing isn’t working either.”

Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said he is a big supporter of local control. But sometimes it’s a curtain to hide behind.

“While certainly CASA is not perfect, it’s not everything for everybody, I think CASA is the first thing I’ve seen in a very long time that finally draws a line in the sand and starts the conversation and candidly calls some communities out,” Canning said.

Long said that the Bay Area added more jobs than housing from 2011-2016. In Napa County, the imbalance was 17-1.

“We are part of the problem,” county Supervisor Belia Ramos said. “We’re a jobs importer, a great thing to be able to brag about, except for our housing deficiency.”

That jobs/housing number cited by Long is for a certain period of time. The Building Industry Association Bay Area reports that Napa County overall has 1.44 jobs for every household, with 1.5 considered ideal.

Napa hotel room revenue tops $426.8 million in 2018 - a record

If you build it they will come… and spend money.

Overnight visitors to Napa County spent more than $426 million in Napa hotel rooms in 2018, a 7.6 percent increase from the year before and a record high.

The average daily room rate of a Napa County hotel rose 4.9 percent — reaching $324.80 per night. Occupancy dipped just .5 percent, settling in at 71.1 percent, according to data and analytics specialist company STR.

“It’s great,” said Clay Gregory, CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “We’re very happy about,” the increases.

Gregory attributes those changes to several things, including the addition of more hotel rooms, an increase in international visitors, and VNV’s ability to market the valley as open for business, especially after the 2017 fires.

According to Atlas Hospitality Group and VNV, an estimated 167 new rooms opened in Napa County in 2018. The majority — 145 rooms — opened at the Vista Collina Resort in South Napa.

A smaller number of new rooms also opened in the Francis House in Calistoga, The Ink House in St. Helena, The Bungalows in Calistoga and the R Inn in Napa. The Archer Napa, with 183 rooms, opened in November 2017.

“Hotels are doing obviously incredibly well in Napa,” said Alan X. Reay, president of Atlas Hospitality Group of Irvine.

The reason Napa Valley is so successful is thanks to tremendous demand and not enough supply, he said.

Napa Valley is probably one of the strongest markets in California for investors and for potential developers, said Reay. However, “it’s very difficult to find land and to develop.”

As many locals already know, “There are not a lot of budget options in Napa,” said Reay. “You can’t afford to build a Motel 6 in Napa.”

The increase in revenue and room rate isn’t a surprise to Jan Freitag, senior vice president of STR.

Napa County’s occupancy rate of 71.1 percent and room rate of $324.80 are very healthy numbers, said Freitag.

The national average hotel occupancy is 66.2 percent and the national average room rate is $130, he noted.

Therefore, the Napa Valley remains “an attractive market for developers and existing hoteliers to be in,” said Freitag.

Indeed, two larger hotels are expected to open in 2019: the Cambria Hotel on Soscol Avenue in Napa (90 rooms) and the Four Seasons in Calistoga (84 rooms).

Freitag noted that the U.S. hotel industry has grown in 105 out of the past 106 months — essentially since the Great Recession.

“That run-up is not unprecedented, but obviously investors, banks and developers are a little bit more careful these days because they don’t want to build into a recession.”

Freitag is not suggesting anything will go wrong. In fact, he forecasts that 2019 and 2020 “will be good but with slower growth.”

Reay said he’s forecasting a leveling-off in hotel values and revenue per available room increases.

Interest rates are going up, which can mean that some buyers can’t afford to pay what they might have paid last year for a hotel, Reay noted. That can also affect what banks are willing to lend for hotels and how much hotels are appraised for.

In addition, “The cost of running operations is going up, especially labor costs.”

However, “As long as the economy continues to be strong I think Napa Valley will still do well,” said Reay.