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Atlas Peak grape grower accuses Napa Vision 2050 of libel

A local grapegrower is suing Napa Vision 2050 for libel over an Internet article that he said falsely claimed he ripped out vernal pools and terrorized animals on Atlas Peak to plant grapes.

Napa Vision 2050 is a coalition of local environmental and community groups involved in the county’s growth battles. A major front has been the spread of vineyards into the mountains and hills that form Napa Valley.

Vintner Igor Sill filed the lawsuit in Napa County Superior Court. The suit claims that the Napa Vision 2050 article made false statements that exposed him to hatred, contempt and ridicule and cost him at least $100,000 in Internet wine sales.

Napa Vision 2050 President Dan Mufson replied to Napa Valley Register questions in an email.

“Napa Vision 2050 denies the portrayal of the contents of the complaint and will aggressively defend the lawsuit,” Mufson said. “Defense counsel is currently working on our response. We expect to be fully vindicated.”

James Jones, the attorney for Sill, said his client and Napa Vision 2050 have the same interest in protecting the ecology of Napa Valley.

“It’s no fun being painted by the same brush that’s used to (paint) the bad guys when you work hard to be a good guy,” Jones said.

The dispute began when Sill wrote a June 2017 article for The Wine Industry Network Advisor website called “The Magic Behind Napa’s Mountain Grown Wines.” Sill grows grapes on Atlas Peak and on a hillside in St. Helena.

“These vines are healthier, fresher and happier,” Sill wrote.

Napa Vision 2050 then ran a story on its website, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit includes what it says is a copy of this story, which lists Mufson as author.

“The (Sill) article makes it sound as though the Almighty himself would burst with pride over these happy wines,” the Napa Vision 2050 story said. “But there’s no mention of the destruction of biota, that has existed on Atlas Peak for thousands of years, required to plant these vines.”

Later come sentences that the lawsuit said are libelous.

“The article does not mention the reality on the ground as Sill is currently ripping out precious vernal pools on Atlas Peak to plant yet more grapes,” the Napa Vision 2050 story said. “Creating terror in the animal population as he acts to create terroir.”

Sill sent Napa Vision 2050 an email asking the group to take the statements down from the website, the lawsuit said.

“No vernal pools were affected, period. None. I purposely stayed away from any vernal pools and sways. I am also a huge animal lover, thus have taken inordinate steps to correct decades of prior poor stewardship,” Sill wrote in the email.

The lawsuit said Sill had Mufson and Vision 2050’s Kathy Felch come to see his property in December 2017. The group still didn’t correct its article, it said.

Sill believes the Napa Vision 2050 article was read by Napa County residents, people elsewhere in California and people throughout the world who are interested in Napa Valley ecology and vintner agricultural practices, the lawsuit said.

As of Tuesday, Napa Vision 2050 hadn’t filed papers in Napa County Superior Court responding to the libel allegations.

There are no indications that the lawsuit is prompting Napa Vision 2050 to forgo its hard-hitting style. The group recently called on the county to redo reports on upcoming watershed and heliport ballot measures “so as not to deceive voters.”

“This lawsuit will not curtail our efforts to better the Napa community,” Mufson said in his email.

Vallerga's Market closing after a 71-year-run in Napa

Vallerga’s Market, whose Napa roots go back 71 years, announced Thursday that it will close on March 31.

The news was given Thursday morning to employees in the Redwood Plaza store, then posted on the store’s Facebook page in the afternoon.

The market had come to the end of its last five-year extension of its long-term lease, said Chris Vallerga Burns, whose family market began in 1947 as Vallerga’s Drive-In Market on First Street, east of Soscol Avenue in what is now the Oxbow District.

“We managed to successfully compete in a very challenging business environment for several generations,” said Vallerga Burns. The business marked its 71st anniversary just one week ago.

However, over those many decades, “The grocery industry has changed,” she said. “It’s a very competitive industry and Napa does have a lot of grocery stores.”

It’s time to retire, said Vallerga Burns, the daughter of the market’s founder, Joe Vallerga, who died in 2012 at age 90.

The market is a hub for many shoppers in north Napa, and has been the anchor of the Redwood Plaza shopping center since 1962. However, in recent years, with the opening of Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Target selling groceries, the business has faced increased competition.

“It’s an end of an era,” said Redwood Plaza shopping center owner Richard Hoertkorn. The family’s decision to retire and close is bittersweet, he said. “We’re going to miss the Vallergas.”

“Our commitment has always been to do what is best for our customers, our employees and the community,” Vallerga Burns wrote in a news release.

“Now it is time to turn the page and begin a new chapter for ourselves and our families. It’s what’s best for us, and while we know that some will be disappointed, we are certain that the greater Napa community will support our decision.”

The store, located at 3385 Solano Ave., has 54 employees, she said. Most were part of the United Food & Commercial Workers International union, she noted. Many staffers had been with the store for several decades.

Vallerga Burns said that the news was likely not a surprise to the employees.

“We have had conversations over the last five years” about the lease status, she said. “They knew the lease was coming up.”

“The good news is that the labor market is favorable right now and many jobs are available,” said Vallerga Burns.

Vallerga’s Market prided itself on being active in Napa, said Vallerga Burns. The business donated more than $17 million of goods and services to local organizations and projects over the past 70 years, she said.

“It’s been great to be part of the growth of this community,” she said. “We’re very proud of Vallerga’s Market.”

“We will miss spending time with our customers and our team, but we look forward to new challenges ahead.”

Located near Highway 29, Vallerga’s is one of only a few grocery stores west of the highway.

The single market was once part of a larger organization. At one point, there were four Vallerga’s markets, including one in Vallejo, as well as a chain of liquor stores.

The Vallejo store closed years ago. In 2005, Vallerga’s closed its Imola Avenue store. In 2007, the Silverado Trail Vallerga’s closed. It was replaced by a sister business, JV Wine and Spirits. It closed in 2012.

Joe Vallerga, founder of the Vallerga's Market chain, checks the chips display in his new store in 1954. 

Joe Vallerga’s father, Giuseppe Vallerga, arrived in Napa in the 1880s from northern Italy. The elder Vallerga eventually bought property on First Street near what is now the CIA at Copia and started a farm providing Napa with fresh vegetables.

The family ran a produce stand and delivery business for many years before the first grocery store was started.

Hoertkorn noted that it’s not just Napa that is losing independently owned grocery stores. It’s a nationwide trend, he said.

He spoke fondly of the Vallerga family and market – a tenant for six decades. “Sixty years,” he marveled. “And I’ve known the family for maybe 50 of those 60 years.”

During those years, “It’s been an extremely pleasant relationship.”

Hoertkorn said the Redwood Plaza shopping center is home to a number of other long-term tenants, including a bike shop, pizza restaurant, salon and laundromat.

“We pride ourselves on that,” he said. Unfortunately, such “mom-and-pop” businesses are almost old-fashioned these days, he said.

Hoertkorn said he has not identified a new tenant yet, but as many as 10 merchants have indicated interested in leasing the 25,000-square-foot space. They include businesses other than grocery stores, he said.

“There is sizable interest in that-sized store in a community the size of Napa,” said the landlord. “The question is making the right deal with the right tenant.”

Wine Industry
Napa County wraps up The Caves at Soda Canyon saga

A long-running saga over The Caves at Soda Canyon winery and whether it can have outdoor tasting areas with Napa Valley views appears to have finally reached a conclusion.

An appeal of Planning Commission approvals went before the Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The Board endorsed a settlement reached between the appellant – who is a neighbor – and the winery.

But everything didn’t go quickly and smoothly. Allowing The Caves at Soda Canyon to have outdoor events on a ridge visible from the valley continued to be a sensitive issue.

“Just in case I wasn’t clear, this is a very reluctant ‘aye’ ” Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

The Caves at Soda Canyon is located on a ridge northeast of the city of Napa at 2275 Soda Canyon Road. The original Planning Commission approval in 2006 called for tasting facilities to be inside the caves, a county report said.

Winery owners came to the Planning Commission in 2015 seeking to legalize a ventilation shaft that had morphed into a cave portal with a tasting area patio overlooking Napa Valley. They also sought to legalize outdoor visitation areas the winery had on the ridge.

The Planning Commission turned down the requests and told applicant Ryan Waugh to wall off the portal for at least a year in compliance with the existing use permit.

In April 2017, the Planning Commission took up The Caves at Soda Canyon issue again. It approved the portal outdoor tasting patio and allowed events on the ridge, as well as increased the annual wine production cap from 30,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons.

Neighbor Steven Stull appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors. But he and Waugh, with the help of Supervisor Belia Ramos and county officials, reached a settlement.

Among other things, the settlement allows use of the cave portal tasting patio. It allows only three of the winery’s 18 annual marketing events to be on the ridge and set the hours from noon to 9:30 p.m. It calls for the winery to hook up to PG&E or use solar for a permanent power source, as opposed to the generator now used.

The agreement also has phasing requirements. For example, six cork oaks must be planted and engineered plans for permanent power must be completed before the winery seeks building permits to reopen the cave portal patio.

Dillon expressed concerns about the ridgetop activities, given the county’s law to protect the scenic views of hills. The Planning Commission can’t approve something against county law. Neither can settlement agreements, she said.

“This viewshed ordinance that we have, that got put in place before I was on the Board, is really important to the residents of this valley,” Dillon said. “It’s really important and I’m concerned about inroads.”

She wondered if the outdoor marketing events on the ridge would use lights and was told “no.” County staff said no structures will be built on the ridge.

“It’s talking about whether people can go to a place,” Ramos said. “And certainly, if the concern is whether people can go to a place on the ridgeline, I don’t believe that’s in the scope of our current viewshed (law).”

Dillon and Board Chair Brad Wagenknecht asked for a broader discussion of the viewshed ordinance at an upcoming meeting.

Ramos said a focus of the settlement discussions was how the parties could be good neighbors. That includes having The Caves at Soda Canyon notify its neighbors before ridgeline events occur.

During public comments, Angwin resident Mike Hackett delivered a critique of The Caves at Soda Canyon. He talked about the ventilation shaft that became a cave portal without a permit.

“If you lived by the rules, I wouldn’t be (up) here at all,” Hackett told Waugh.

Supervisor Ryan Gregory praised Stull and The Caves at Soda Canyon for reaching a settlement.

“This has been quite a settlement negotiation,” attorney Scott Greenwood-Meinert said on behalf of The Caves at Soda Canyon. “We are very pleased with the result.”

Rick Manahan Photography 

Vintage third baseman Eli Wood grabs a one-hop grounder before tagging out an American Canyon baserunner on Wednesday.

Napa economy holds fast after wildfires, but labor shortages loom

An area economist has encouraging words about Napa County’s economic recovery from the October wildfires.

“Napa is still a very attractive place to live and work. People will come back” and continue to spend money, said Robert Eyler, Ph.D., professor of economics at Sonoma State University. At the same time, a labor shortage remains a constant concern, he said.

Eyler shared these remarks during a phone interview in advance of a presentation on Friday at a Sonoma County economic conference. The presentation, “Regional Reconstruction and Expansion,” was hosted by the North Bay Business Journal and Sonoma State and held in Rohnert Park.

While Sonoma County faces a significant battle to rebuild both physically and economically, in Napa County “everything is OK in the medium- to long-term,” said Eyler. “There is no reason to panic.”

At the same time, county supervisors, cities, neighborhoods, builders, businesses and agencies must work together to rebuild, said the economist.

That also means continuing to communicate the message that Napa Valley is open for business, he noted.

“Napa County relies a lot on weekend travelers from the Bay Area,” said Eyler. “If those folks utilize social media” to promote their visits “and keep coming up here, that will help a lot on getting the word out.”

On Thursday, Visit Napa Valley, Napa County’s official tourism agency, reported positive visitation numbers from Smith Travel Research for December and January.

Hotel occupancy was 6.8 percent higher in December from the previous year and hotel revenue was up 9.2 percent. In January, occupancy was 4 percent higher from the previous year and revenue was up by 8.8 percent.

As for the fires’ effect on 2017 wines, “we need to get through the 2017 vintage and get some tasting notes” to combat any perception that the vintage will have reduced quality because of smoke taint, he said.

If those things work out, said Eyler, “We should see a resurgence” during the coming tourist season and “Napa County should have a great year in 2018.”

The October 2017 wildfires were estimated to cost $9.4 billion in insured damages, said California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. Because the fires crossed county lines, that figure includes damage for both Sonoma and Napa counties.

While the fires were a tragedy, the rebuilding process will impact the local economy, said Eyler.

Eyler estimated that every $1 billion of new construction in Napa County will require an estimated 4,860 construction workers supporting another 3,330 jobs. That work will contribute an estimated $215 million for local vendors and merchants and another $213 million to the local economy based on worker and businesses spending. It will also add an estimated $57 million in state and local taxes.

Two additional factors will likely affect the Napa County economy this year. The first is a great demand for labor, said Eyler. Construction workers to rebuild homes are in particular demand. A growing cannabis industry is also siphoning off other workers, he said.

“There was a lot of news last year how Napa Valley wineries and vineyards were struggling to find labor,” he said. “This year is going to be worse because there are more uncertainties on the labor demand side. It’s going to be a confounding year for Napa wineries, vineyards and hospitality industries.”

“And it’s not only in Napa County where there will be competition,” said Eyler. “It’s a regional marketplace. Napa employers have got to be thinking now what they intend to do to find workers come harvest and bottling time.”