Delia Viader, who produces of one of Napa Valley's most highly rated Cabernets, has been fined for violating the county's strict environmental regulations and is paying at least $40,000.
According to the county, Viader cleared and graded land on her Howell Mountain property in the summer of 2000 without the proper permit. She agreed to the civil court settlement on March 27.
The judgment included a $30,000 fine, plus $10,000 in legal costs, and Viader could pay another $15,000 if she violates the law again. The county had previously filed criminal charges against Viader over the same incident, and in May 2001, she pleaded no contest, paid a $2,700 fine, worked 15 hours community service and was given three years probation.
Deputy district attorney Daryl Roberts said penalties were stiff because it wasn't Viader's first run-in with hillside-erosion problems. In 1990, part of Viader's property eroded into Bell Canyon Reservoir, polluting St. Helena's main water supply. That incident was one of the inspirations behind Napa's Hillside Ordinance, which established strict controls on vineyards planted on sloped land.
Viader said that in 2000 she was planting a small grove of olive trees, not vineyards, and thought she was within the law. She also believes the county is making an example of her, while not prosecuting other less-prominent landowners.
"I understand the concept of trying to chop down the tallest tree. I make wines that seem to be popular, so I guess it's a great compliment," Viader said. "They say I caused the hillside ordinance and that I was sued in 1990. I was never sued. There was nothing against me."
Viader planted her vineyard on a steep slope of Howell Mountain in 1986 and released her first Cabernet blend three years later. The 1998 Viader (95 points, $65 on release) was No. 3 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2001 and the 1997 (97, $60) placed second on the 2000 list.
Viader is the third person charged criminally for violating the hillside ordinance, according to Roberts, and he said she won't be the last.
"We're seeing a lot of people flouting the law," Roberts said. "Napa Valley wines obviously sell for a lot of money, and for many it's easier to pay the judgment. They can make the cost up in a few days at crush. It's just the cost of doing business."
There is more at stake now, Roberts warned, than a civil fine. "We're sending the message now that you may just pay a fine the first time, but if you do it again, you're going to jail. You're a criminal."
Check our recent ratings of Viader wines.
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