Tourists have long come to Alexander Valley for its scenery, supple Cabernets and intimate wineries. For the past year, it has also been a place to bet on blackjack or arm-wrestle a slot machine at River Rock Casino, the San Francisco Bay Area's largest Native American gaming facility. But many residents of this rural area in northeastern Sonoma County aren't happy about the new neighbor.
"It doesn't really fit the area," said Jim Murphy, president of Murphy-Goode Estate Winery, which is just south of the casino. "I would say the majority of the people here are upset about it."
Opposition from valley residents and the county government couldn't stop the local Pomo tribe from opening the casino in September 2002. State and federal laws permit casinos on Native American-owned land, and local governments often have little or no authority in the matter.
For the Pomo, the land is theirs to do with as they wish, and the casino is a means to support the tribe's way of life. "We're still trying to protect and defend all of those issues and rights we've been trying to preserve for some time," said tribal chairperson Liz Legin De Rouen.
But to the Alexander Valley Association, a group of farmers, wineries and property owners, the conflict comes down to location. "So many times we come off as being racist and anti-Indian, but if this were a Kmart store or a Holiday Inn, we'd be just as much against it," said the group's president, Ralph Sceales. In 1998, the association opposed a large winery project: Kendall-Jackson's expansion of its Stonestreet facility.
From Highway 101 across the valley, the casino looks like a gigantic greenhouse on the edge of a hillside. For residents along Highway 128, where the entrance is located, the casino is hidden from view up a steep, winding road. Open 24 hours a day, the tent-like building, about the size of a football field, houses 1,600 slot machines and 16 poker and blackjack tables.
While residents say they are concerned about environmental issues like wastewater, the biggest headache so far seems to be traffic. Tour buses, once a rarity along two-lane Highway 128, now regularly ferry day-trippers. Sceales worries that the road could turn deadly at harvest when it is full of tractors and grape gondolas.
The Pomo tribe -- and its corporate partner, Nevada Gold & Casinos -- argue that the casino helps the tribe's 700 members rise out of generations of poverty. They also claim Sonoma County benefits as well, with an estimated $26 million going to salaries each year and more than $36 million to local businesses and vendors. "I think we're bringing to the community a lot of much-needed jobs and revenue, and not only for tribal members," De Rouen said.
Alexander Valley vintners say they are still waiting for the benefits. "If [gamblers] come into the winery, they're looking for directions," Murphy said.
The county and valley residents still hope they can convince the tribe to move the casino to an area zoned for business, with easy access to Highway 101. The latest weapon in the war is the casino's liquor license, for which approval has been stalled.
The irony of winegrowers blocking a liquor license is not lost on locals. But Sceales argued, "I think there's a big difference between tasting an ounce of wine and sitting by a slot machine drinking a highball."
Sonoma County has two more casinos in the works. One, in Cloverdale, has stirred little controversy because planners are working closely with the community. But plans for a large casino south of the city of Sonoma have outraged residents. That location is near the Carneros district and prominent wineries such as Gloria Ferrer and Cline. If that project proceeds as planned, Carneros would join Alexander Valley as a mecca for both wine and gambling.
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