Call it the fight for the hills. A growing dispute over hillside vineyard planting in Napa Valley flared up Tuesday when several environmental groups filed lawsuits against Napa County over Hall Wines' plans to plant 209 acres of vines in the eastern hills near Lake Berryessa. Both the Napa Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed one suit, and the Living Rivers Council, which filed another, argue that the Napa County Board of Supervisors was wrong to approve the project at Walt Ranch because it violates the California Environmental Quality Act and could destroy habitats for threatened species.
For the team at Hall, it was just one more chapter in a long struggle. "This has been one of the most exhaustively studied vineyard developments in Napa Valley," Mike Reynolds, president of Hall Wines, told Wine Spectator. He believes that Napa officials have gone beyond their legal requirement to ensure that the environmental impact of the project will be unsubstantial.
Hall owners Craig and Kathryn Hall purchased the 2,300-acre property a decade ago, and since then the land has remained untouched. They originally planned to plant 356 acres.
But an environmental impact report conducted in 2008 initially showed that vineyard development in the area could cause potentially significant impacts to the environment. The Hall team went back to the drawing board, reducing the size of the project by 41 percent.
While it's believed that nearly 160 acres of trees might be removed to make room for vineyards and access roads, the Halls maintain that more than 200,000 trees will be protected, with additional trees planted. Furthermore, the 35 proposed vineyard parcels were strategically chosen based on the location of tributaries, grade slopes and other topography to ensure erosion was naturally limited, and will be farmed in a sustainable manner.
Eight years after the initial impact report, Napa County published a final environmental impact report in March 2016, including studies of the plan and recommendations for reducing the impact. County Planning Director David Morrison officially approved the proposal in June 2016, stating that the project had taken the appropriate steps to mitigate environmental impacts. The county board approved it on Dec. 20.
Hall is not the usual target of environmentalists. The winery has certified all of its vineyards as organically farmed and it became the first wine-production facility in California to earn the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification for energy-efficient design at the prestigious Gold level, an achievement it followed with another Gold certification for its tasting room.
Despite the board review and the winery's previous environmental efforts, opponents remain skeptical. Nancy Tamarisk, chair of the Napa Sierra Club, argues that the biological studies done for the project were incomplete and flawed. "Replacing woodland with vineyards increases sedimentation, even with good erosion-control plans," Tamarisk told Wine Spectator. She calls Walt Ranch an oversized project that will destroy large swaths of habitat, threaten at-risk species, imperil local water supplies and counter efforts to fight climate change.
Aruna Prabhala, urban wildlands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, stated in a press release that their lawsuit highlights concerns over the construction and alteration of more than 20 miles of roads, new fencing that will reduce habitat connectivity, the use of harmful pesticides, the drawdown of local groundwater aquifers and a host of other activities that will impair water quality in streams crucial to the survival of local salmon, reptiles and amphibians. The suit also argues that the work could pollute the adjacent Milliken Reservoir, which supplies water to the City of Napa, and the groundwater aquifer, which is the sole source for the Circle Oaks Community.
Reynolds pointed out that no winery is planned for the site, and it will be used solely for agricultural purposes. Many local vintners find it frustrating that vineyard plantings, once considered an ideal way to keep Napa from becoming overdeveloped, are now seen as undesirable. The entire Walt Ranch property is included in the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve and thus is zoned for agriculture.
With the amount of plantable land in Napa Valley dwindling, vintners are increasingly headed to the foothills. The court battle over Walt Ranch could decide whether they continue to look there or opt for outside Napa County.