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Angwin winery importing Napa Valley soil for hillside vineyard
Wine Industry

Angwin winery importing Napa Valley soil for hillside vineyard

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Bremer Family Winery is importing soil by the truckload – some from the Napa River restoration project in the heart of Napa Valley—to Deer Park Road near Angwin to turn rocky ground into a vineyard.

Maybe, just maybe, Howell Mountain is, with some human help, reclaiming what is its own from along the Napa River. Bremer Family Winery General Manager Tom Trzesniewski made this point with a chuckle.

“Over hundreds of thousands of years, all the soil of the mountain has been washed to the valley floor,” he said.

The Bremer Family Winery project is ongoing. John and Laura Bremer have applied to the county to increase the amount of soil they can haul to the site, which is located just outside the Howell Mountain Appellation.

County officials want clarification on the total. One part of the application calls for importing another 15,000 cubic yards, in addition to 30,000 cubic yards already authorized, for a 45,000 cubic yard total. But wording in another part seemingly calls for an additional 45,000 cubic yards.

To put this in perspective, 45,000 cubic yards of soil is enough to fill more than 3,000 average-sized dump trucks. It’s enough to cover 28 acres a foot deep.

No Napa County Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission hearing is needed. As with the original 2012 erosion control plan for the project, the modified version will be considered by county staff.

Still, this behind-the-scenes project is gaining attention. Several residents at the Aug. 2 Board of Supervisors meeting questioned during public comments whether the project can control erosion, whether the project is following county rules and whether the county is properly monitoring the construction work.

Beyond that, some people question whether the project should happen at all.

“We are talking about farming on the fringes now,” Angwin resident Kellie Anderson said. “We are talking about wealth without wisdom.”

Supervisor Mark Luce said that, without judging the project, he wants staff to give the Board of Supervisors an update at a future meeting.

“I’ve heard a lot about the Bremer Family Winery and a number of concerns … it does seem like an extraordinary project,” Luce said.

John and Laura Bremer bought the winery at 975 Deer Park Road in 2002. John Bremer is listed by the Wall Street Journal as being a senior executive with U.S. Mine Corp., a director at Purebase Corp. and CEO of GroWest, Inc.

The Bremers had Trzesniewski speak to the Napa Valley Register on their behalf.

Trzesniewski talked about the virtues of the Howell Mountain grape growing appellation, from which Bremer sources grapes for some of its wines. The volcanic, rocky soil is well-drained, allowing vintners to stress the vines by limiting how much water the vines receive.

As a result, the vines put energy into growing and ripening fruit that is small, with more skin and less juice, he said. Aficionados say this creates more intense wine flavors.

But an area John Bremer targeted for a vineyard had one ingredient missing from its terroir—the French word that encompasses natural factors such as climate and soil that shape how wine tastes. The modified application with the county calls for a 30-acre vineyard.

“John removed the grass and started digging into what he hoped would be some soil, and it turned out it was all rock,” Trzesniewski said.

John Bremer used the rocks to create what Trzesniewski called a “reservoir.” But this reservoir wasn’t for water, but for dirt that would come from elsewhere. Bremer Family Winery needed a kind of terroir transplant, at least as far as soil goes.

Meanwhile, the voluntary Napa River restoration effort involves creating flood terraces for a river that over time has been channelized by humans. Making room for a wider river in the Rutherford area and now the Oak Knoll area has meant large amounts of soil have had to be excavated.

Trzesniewski said Bremer Family Winery project took some of this soil. The transformation of the rocky landscape for the Howell Mountain vineyard is underway.

“John’s whole vision is to create something beautiful,” he said.

County records show that that county officials and Bremer Family Winery have disagreed at various times over whether the project has followed county requirements in a timely fashion.

For example, the county contended in 2015 letters that the Bremers needed to immediately move part of an existing vineyard from a stream setback. It also said the Bremers had incorrectly implemented drainage plans.

A Dec. 14, 2015 letter from attorney Richard Opper on behalf of the Bremers said the Bremers had tried to meet county demands that had become less and less justified. The rapid devolution to enforcement shouldn’t have happened, he wrote.

“I think it is possible that some private animus is motivating this unusual regulatory response,” he wrote.

Napa County sent the Bremers a January 2016 letter from Deputy County Counsel Janice Killion. She said county staff had worked with the Bremers for one-and-a-half years to try to bring the project into compliance.

Development on the ground differs from the approved plan and could affect water quality, so immediate action is needed, Killion wrote.

County Supervising Planner Brian Bordona said on Wednesday that the Bremers’ new application should address the differences between the approved project and what’s happened on the ground. Staff is requesting more information from the Bremers before it will deem the application complete.

Meanwhile, he said, the Bremers are to take steps to make certain no erosion problems result from the winter rains.

Trzesniewski said a project such as this can have an occasional misstep, adding a drain pond malfunctioned. The Bremers corrected the problem.

The Bremers want clear information from the county, he said.

“The only thing the Bremers want to do is follow what the county wants – if they can understand what it wants – and have the best possible project ever,” Trzesniewski said.

This story has been modified since first posting to clarify the location of the proposed vineyard, located just beyond the Howell Mountain Appellation. 

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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