The Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve: Looking Back to See How Far We’ve Come
Historically, the ideal of preservation is ripe with controversy. It’s something that’s hotly debated between preservationists and developers in the moment, and then greatly appreciated by the beneficiary generations that follow.
Case in point: on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service was established. It’s hard to imagine a world without Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but it took a conscious act to set aside that land and thwart any development or exploitation. So, in the year of the National Parks’ 100th anniversary, it’s especially poignant to look at our own backyard to appreciate the acres and acres of scenic vineyards that populate Napa County. It could’ve been different.
The closer-to-home case in point is Napa County. Our valley is a clear example of how a little foresight and tenacity shaped policy that ensured the preservation of agricultural land and open spaces. The idyllic vineyards that line our roads and lanes didn’t happen on their own. Back in the 1960s, it was anything but clear. Today it’s hard to believe that Napa wasn’t always synonymous with vineyards and wine. But in the ‘60s, Napa was on the same growth trajectory as other Bay Area regions, like in the Peninsula, where farmland and green spaces were destined to become subdivisions and shopping strips. It takes only a glimpse at what is now Silicon Valley to imagine what might have happened to Napa.
While many Members lived through this time, equally as many Members might not know the entire backstory. For a more thorough study on this, lawyer and fellow Member of
The Napa Valley Reserve Richard Mendelson’s just published book Wine in America: Law and Policy is a must-read. When we spoke with him on the topic, he correctly summarizes the Ag Preserve as “not just one act, but a series of acts.”
The gist of the story is that the 1968 Napa County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission saved the day, probably in the nick of time. That was the year when they established the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve (aka the “Ag Preserve”) and passed an ordinance with the idea being that “agriculture is the highest and best use of the land.” (This follows the 1966 passage of the California Land Conservation (Williamson) Act, which allowed for property tax benefits for agricultural land because of a reduction in assessed value.) The Board of Supervisors mandated that agriculture was the only commercial activity allowed on the land and set minimum lot sizes to prevent subdivision—and therefore development—to 40 acres. At this time, the land was very much plum trees and grazing land. There were fewer than 65 wineries in the county, so wine was not king back then.
But, vineyards were definitely showing promise as a “highest and best use of the land,” and this truth eventually led to the formation of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association (NVGA), which was established in 1975. W. Andrew Beckstoffer and John Trefethen were two of the founding members of the NVGA, where the aim was to create a community for grape growers to share ideas and best practices for successful farming, and to act as a counterpart to the Napa Valley Vintners Association. The focus of this group of growers was on the agricultural aspect of grape growing in the Valley by giving them a voice independent of wineries, but with the common goal of ensuring that Napa wines remain world class. Now, the NVGA represents 690 Napa County Grapegrowers.
Once again, what seems so obvious now, was actually a hard fought battle. Similar to events preceding the establishment of the Ag Preserve, long hearings, large crowds, and heated debates surrounded the ultimate passage of the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) in 1990. The WDO defines a winery as an “agricultural processing facility” that turns grapes into wine via fermentation and processing. As a result of this definition, the WDO regulates the land from Napa to Calistoga through zoning restrictions, and further brings vineyards under the protection of the Ag Preserve. It codified how much vineyard land could be taken over for winery use. This explains the limitations on wineries for hosting private parties and weddings as well as selling food and art.
Importantly, the WDO restricts grape sourcing. Starting in 1990, it required that all new wineries use at least 75% Napa-grown grapes in their Napa-designated wines. The idea being that it’s important to support the local Napa growers—local agriculture broadly—and to protect the reputation of Napa Valley as one of the world’s leading regions for quality wine.
The bigger debate swirled around the grandfathered wineries and how the county will enforce the ordinance that wineries established before 1990 were exempt from the 75-percent rule. Many feel like the grapes should always be at least 75-percent from Napa. Either way, the 75-percent rule was re-established in 2013. The board didn’t want to disrupt it, but there was some debate about whether or not the county makes enough grapes to supply future winery expansion.
Without 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute best answer is. But a common goal of maintaining the world-class reputation of Napa Valley wines will hopefully unite decision-makers so that we’ll continue to create policies and overseeing bodies with an eye towards longevity and the wellbeing of the land and for future generations. Only time will tell.