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Winemaker Sues Napa Valley in True Scorched Earth Legal Battle

Oct. 7, 2022, 7:34 PM

A Napa Valley, Calif., premium wine maker is accusing county planners of overreaching, erroneously interpreting planning codes and penalizing him for removing wildfire-scorched trees and an experimental vine planting.

In a complaint filed Thursday at Napa County Superior Court, vintner Jayson Woodbridge’s Hundred Acre Wine Group Inc. says many landowners in the region “have been confronted with mountainous red tape and endless bureaucratic obstacles, when applying for permits to develop productive vineyards to which the land is ideally suited.”

The winemaker’s removing “dead, charred remains of fire-killed trees and stumps was not vegetation clearing and did not involve excavation,” and thus didn’t trigger any code violations, according to the complaint. Nor did introducing the experimental dry farming vineyard involve “planting,” which is undefined in the county’s conservation regulations, a violation, the filing said.

Hundred Acre seeks a declaratory judgment that its clearing of burned trees and stumps doesn’t violate county ordinances, nor does its planting of an experimental vineyard, that Napa’s enforcement of its conservation regulations is violating the vineyard’s rights, an an order barring the county from doing so.

Interim County Counsel Thomas Zeleny didn’t immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The alleged administrative delays and barriers come after five years of fires have hammered the industry. Some 80 acres on the 113-acre property in Calistoga off the famed Silverado Trail was incinerated in the 2020 Glass Fire that consumed 67,484 acres over 23 days. The fire spread over Napa and Sonoma counties and destroyed 1,555 structures and damaged another 282, according to CalFire.

Flavorful Fruit

Hundred Acre Wines, which produces cabernets that sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars, proposed dry farming vines under which the winegrape vines are lightly watered and produce more flavorful fruit. The technique historically was used in the region and is used by several winegrowers, Napa Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer Ryan Koblas said in a phone interview on Friday.

“If successful, such a dry-farmed vineyard would provide numerous benefits, including increased erosion control with a vineyard that would develop the deep and extensive root growth required to reach water sources in the ground; a substantial protective fire-break guarding the Property’s, and neighboring properties’ structures; a more beautiful view when compared to the barren, burned-out landscape left behind by the Glass Fire; and potentially an economically productive use of the land,” Hundred Acre said it its complaint.

“Anecdotally, l have not heard from members that want to file lawsuits but I can tell you there are a number of members that routinely come to us asking us for our help” dealing with the county, Koblas said.

The Napa Farm Bureau’s membership includes winery owners, vineyard managers and farmworkers, “so this issue is very much top of mind for our members” as they rebuild and prepare land to replant, he said.

Wine King

Wine rules in Napa County, where winegrape production last year was $741,732,000, up $380.3 million from 2020, according to the county’s 2021 crop report.

The year 2020 was wretched for winemakers, many of whom won’t be offering a 2020 vintage because of smoke damage to grapes from extensive and lingering fires. The valley’s renowned Cabernet Sauvignon was planted on 24,094 acres in 2020 with a price per ton of $6,261, compared to $7,941 per ton in 2019 and $8,082 per ton in 2021, the crop report said.

Land use battles in Napa County are not uncommon. Two years of fighting over woodland and watershed protections in a wine versus water fight led to a compromise that made no one happy.

Proponents, including members of the wine industry, say the measure fails to protect the future and embrace resilience measures demanded by climate change. Opponents, including members of the wine industry, argue there is no science behind the decision or economic consideration for impact of limiting development.

The Hundred Acre suit accuses the county of selectively enforcing conservation regulations “against Glass Fire victims that seek to farm non-erosive vineyards on their hillside properties, and nonenforcement of those same regulations against other Glass Fire victims making other uses of their properties (including leaving them barren) is unsupported by any rational reason.”

Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP represent Hundred Acre Wine Group.

The case is Hundred Acre Wine Group, Inc. v. County of Napa, Cal. Super. Ct., No. 22CV001166, filed 10/6/22.

Causes of Action: Declaratory relief and violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution Article I § 7

Relief: Declaration that removing fire-killed trees and stumps and introducing an experimental vineyard didn’t violate Napa County Code and injunctive relief.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com