“It was a fight. It’s a fight so far ‘: environmental activism in Napa Valley
When Mary Ann McGuire landed in Napa Valley at the age of 20 in 1960, she felt a special connection to the area.
“We saw it as a lush garden,” she says. “I felt this sense of power that came from the earth… To me, it carried a spiritual imprint that a mother feels towards a child you want to protect.
During her early years in the valley, McGuire, who had moved to the area with her new husband, cattle breeder George Gamble, saw no reason to act on this protective instinct.
But in the mid-1960s, California entered an era of development. And as more and more farmland gave way to subdivisions and shopping centers, the wine growers, farmers, ranchers and residents of Napa County began to feel the pressure of what this development could mean for the country. region.
For McGuire, this pressure came to a head in 1965, when the United States Army Corps of Engineers stripped vegetation along the banks of the Conn River, which ran straight through their ranch. It was replaced by a concrete coating.
When McGuire learned that the same concrete fate was destined for every regional waterway, she couldn’t stand it, and neither could her neighbors.
The community, linked by phone calls and door-to-door outreach, opposed the waterway project as well as the development of a six-lane highway crossing Mt. Saint Helena offered by the California Department of Transportation. Together, McGuire and others canceled both plans.
The people of Napa Valley at the time saw a future of land covered in greenery and vines, but they also recognized the fragility of that vision.
“We understood that we may have got a highway [the] pounds, and the river thing beaten for time, ”McGuire says. “But nothing would stop the developers from coming here.” They had seen it perform a few miles away, in the Santa Clara Valley.
“In the mid-1960s, the Santa Clara Valley was on the verge of extinction as a place of grape growing,” says Warren Winiarski, famous Napa Valley winemaker and founder and former owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
In fact, the Santa Clara Valley had over 100,000 acres of orchards in 1940. That declined to less than 6,000 acres in 1990, according to Napa Valley Grapegrowers, a trade organization created to preserve and promote the region’s vineyards.
“The idea in Napa was to avoid that fate and seek to preserve agriculture as a way of life,” says Winiarski.
So, community members thought about a way to conserve Napa land for farming. “We thought, ‘How do we pass legislation that will enshrine that in law and then protect it? How can we preserve this wonderful valley for agriculture? McGuire says.
The answer was the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, a set of zoning laws enacted in 1968 to protect agricultural areas. The first such legislation in the United States, it declared agricultural use the best fate for the fertile foothills of Napa.
Initially, the Ag Preserve protected 23,000 acres of land, a number that has since grown to over 38,000 acres.
Agriculture is the only commercial activity allowed on the protected lands. The reserve also prohibits the allocation of land to less than 40 acres, which prevents subdivision and future development, according to Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
“I have nothing against subdivisions, but houses that you can have anywhere,” says Winiarski. “There are only a few places with a potential for the great beauty of the fruit and the wine that is produced here.
The whole community needed to be associated with the project. A committee was formed, chaired by Jack Davies, Schramsberg winemaker at the time. Everyone had a role to play.
For Winiarski, a newcomer to Napa at the time, it meant going door-to-door in the area he lived in, Angwin, to defend the reservation.
“Since I lived up there, I have been given the responsibility of ensuring that this community, the Pacific Union College, and the president of the college [to support the movement],” he says.
But not everyone supported him. Unlike the problems with highways and waterways, which McGuire says unites many people across the valley, the Ag Preserve has seen backlash.
“There was a lot of local dismay,” says Ren Harris, founder of Napa Valley Grapegrowers and former president and owner of Paradigm Winery. “You know, those who didn’t like people telling them what to do with their land.”
Harris was a strong supporter of the initiative and attended all of the hearings held by the Planning Commission and the Supervisory Board.
In the end, he passed both councils unanimously, he says.
But even if successful, growers saw the need to strengthen protection to prevent it from being destroyed over time or challenged by future governments.
When the Ag Preserve was created, Napa Valley was not the internationally renowned wine region it is today.
“The only way to preserve the valley was to produce world-class wine,” says McGuire. “We had to become a Bordeaux, a Burgundy. This wine industry had to be developed.
When the Ag Preserve was established in 1968, Napa Valley had 14,000 acres of vineyards. In 1975, that number increased to 24,000 acres.
That year, the now legendary “Jugement de Paris”, where the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, produced by Winiarski, and a 1973 Chardonnay from Château Montelena took first place. It was a first for California and it was an example of the quality of wine Napa Valley could produce. Since the inception of the Ag Preserve, not a single acre of protected farmland has been converted to urban use, according to Napa Valley winemakers.
In Napa, the spirit of preservation seems to have been passed down as much of the land itself. The next generation of Napa Valley growers, like Tom Gamble, an Oakville-based winemaker, McGuire’s son, have taken over.
In 1990, the younger generation passed an ordinance known as Measure J, which demanded a referendum to convert protected farmland to non-farm use, rather than a supervisory board vote. This decision was extended in 2008 by the P measure, which considerably strengthened the integrity of the Ag Preserve until at least 2058.
“This love for the land, my mom and dad and my other ancestors passed on to us and really set an example,” says Gamble. “So I think that’s why you still have the Farm Bureau and the wineries and other organizations that want to work so hard to preserve this place.”
Gamble, who considers sustainability a core value of his Gamble family wineries, has learned from the example of his parents and their peers not to take Napa Valley for granted.
“People think it just happened or always has been like this, and it hasn’t,” he says. “It was a fight. It’s a struggle to date.
The consensus among Napa Valley winegrowers is that without the Ag Preserve, the region’s fertile land would be paved and populated.
“I firmly believe that without the Ag Preserve, Napa Valley probably wouldn’t be a big factor in the wine world today,” says Harris.
“We have to think about what supports this preservation, which means looking to the future, anticipating problems, taking into account limits and acting in such a way that we continue to produce the beautiful wines that we have in the past,” says Winiarski. “I think as far as I can, I should continue to give my full contribution to the same cause I worked for in the beginning, to avoid things that would reduce the valley’s ability to continue into the future.