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It Can Happen Here

“I’m afraid that Napa is becoming the Valley of the Oligarchs. If it can happen here, where people are reasonably intelligent it can happen anywhere.” — St. Helena city councilman Geoff Ellsworth

Where does one go to glimpse the future? There have always been science fiction novels such as H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange World, as well as more recent films such as The Planet of the Apes. But what if you want to go to a real place on the planet to get a sense of where humanity is headed?

The preeminent California writer, Joan Didion, told me that for years when she wanted to see the future, she looked at Miami and New Orleans. She added that more recently she didn't know where to focus her eyes and her critical intelligence, though she added, “To be a Californian means to be full of contradictions. I think it’s more contradictory than any other place in the country.”

The author, James Conaway, doesn't argue that Napa County has more contradictions than any other place in California. But he has written that Napa is the location where one can see what lies ahead. From his perspective, it’s in the very eye of the cultural and political storm that has been spreading across the U.S. He’s written three non-fiction books about Napa. All of them describe the loss of an Eden and the corrupting power of money and privilege.

Initially, I was dubious of Conaway’s perspective. It’s true that after Disneyland, Napa is a major tourist destination and attraction, and yet it’s a small county. The population of today is about 150,000. It has 789 square miles.

But Napa is world-famous for wine and Napa wines goes almost everywhere in the world.

The more I thought about Conaway’s idea, the less skeptical I became.

Recently, I went to Napa and looked at the place through his eyes. I had been there before, but merely as a tourist who ate in restaurants and drank wine in places like Tra Vigne and Bouchon, famous in the foodie world.

In some ways, my most recent trip to Napa felt like going back in time to the feudal past. After all, Napa has vineyard aristocrats in their mansions and servants and serfs who work directly in the wine industry, or for it in one capacity or another.

From Conaway’s perspective, tourists are a big part of the Napa predicament. Indeed, hordes come by car and overrun the landscape. I saw them on my most recent foray into the dark heart of Napa, which is about thirty minutes away from where I live in Sonoma, California.

Sonoma is much bigger geographically speaking than Napa, less developed commercially and without the glitz associated with its sister county, though its western edge on the Pacific Ocean gives it a distinctive flavor. Napa is landlocked, though a tiny portion borders on San Pablo Bay at its southern-most tip.

I was the guest of two longtime Napa residents who don’t like the way the county has evolved — or devolved — over the past half century. In their company I felt like a pilgrim in a lost Eden.

Geoff Ellsworth was raised in Napa by parents who operated a business that sold equipment to the wine industry.

“My mother and father were living in Berkeley before I was born,” he told me. “They didn’t think it was a good place to raise children so they moved to Napa.”

Ellsworth grew up there just in time to witness a revolution that transformed the place for a sleepy backwater to a thriving economic powerhouse that attracted the super rich, as well as Latinos who have worked the land.

An accomplished artist and a councilman in St. Helena, one of the ritziest towns in the county, Ellsworth said he never thought he would see the kind of environmental destruction that he has seen in Napa for years and still sees everyday.

Indeed, if one wanted to view the impacts of greed unleashed, the power of money and the corruption of the democratic process, Napa is as good a place as any to start.

“It’s beginning to look like clean water for everyone is revolutionary,” Ellsworth told me.

To see Napa raw and naked one has to get away from Main Street and downtown and venture in the hills and mounts where right now woods and trees are being harvested with little if any concern for wild life and endangered species. Then, the land is cleared with heavy machinery to make way for more vineyards.

With Ellsworth was Kellie Anderson who has lived in Napa County for 27 years and who worked for decades in the wine industry and for the county agricultural commissioner.

Feisty and fearless, she knows from her own professional experience, what the rules are, and how they’re routinely broken by the big corporations that have snapped up land, blasted rock with dynamite, privatized watersheds and polluted streams and creeks with harmful herbicides and chemicals.

“It's total insanity what’s happening here,” Anderson told me. “No one enforces the laws and there’s a huge amount of intimidation and fear.”

Ellsworth added, “Word has gotten out that Napa is a place where no one pays attention to rules and so no one in the wine industry is afraid of breaking rules and lying. The newspapers have been co-opted.”

We climbed into the mountains and stopped every half-mile so that Anderson could point to a vineyard or a plot of land where the rules had been broken. In some place, it was shocking. Creeks and streams had been buried under piles of earth and chemicals were stored in unsafe, hazardous locations.

Long-time residents have been forced from their homes to make way for more vineyards. Almost all of them are surrounded by high fences and stonewalls.

“A member of the citizens auxiliary police,” as she calls herself, Anderson raises a hue and cry at public meetings. She also lights a fire under councilman Ellsworth. He appreciates her enthusiasm and her civic concern.

“I’m afraid that Napa is becoming the Valley of the Oligarchs,” Ellsworth told me. “If it can happen here where people are reasonably intelligent it can happen anywhere.”

The problems, Anderson went on to explain, are manifold.

“The vineyard owners and wine makers dispense funds to most of the civic groups and organizations and anytime anyone criticizes them they point to their philanthropic efforts,” she said. “Citizens are told that if the vineyards and the wineries are forced to adhere to environmental regulations people will lose their jobs and won’t be able to pay the rent and put food on the table to feed their children.”

Anderson added, “the women who work in PR for the wineries are some of the worst.”

Ellsworth listened carefully, and then told me that, “On the surface, the grape and wine industry seems much cleaner than the coal industry, but it too is very dirty and very responsible for deforestation and pollution of the environment.”

But all is not lost. Ellsworth, Anderson and hundreds of citizens have banded together to make what might be a last stand against the oligarchs. Indeed, in the spirit of California democracy, they have drafted an initiative that’s on the ballot in Napa June 5.

“The Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018” — known as “C” — states that when enacted it will “protect the water quality of Napa County’s streams, watersheds, wetlands and forests and safeguard the public health, safety and welfare of the County’s residents.”

The con “C” forces managed to write false and misleading statements about “C” and then include them in the voter information pamphlet. But a lawyer and a vineyard owner named Yeoryios C. Apallas filed a lawsuit, also in the spirit of California democracy.

The Napa County Superior Court ordered the removal of the false statements from the pamphlet.

Still, the ruling didn’t stop the proliferation of “No on ‘C’” signs that insist that if successful the initiative will lead to higher taxes, the end of individual freedom and a loss of personal income.

“The same issues were around in the 1990s,” Anderson told me. “But back then almost no one paid attention. Now, we’re way beyond the tipping point and people are beginning to wake up and see what’s happening right here and right now.”

Ellsworth added, “The ‘No’ on ‘C’ forces have argued that the initiative will end comfortable life styles, but many people are not buying that view anymore.”

Indeed, it looks as though democracy will triumph on June 5.

“It’s a first step,” Ellsworth said. “The ‘Yes’ on ‘C’ campaign has educated the public and raised awareness about our most valuable resource: water.”

Author James Conaway doesn’t claim credit for the awakening of the citizenry, but his three Napa books, including the most recent, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age if Calamity (Simon & Schuster), have played a key role and shown that in the age of the tweet, the book as a medium for information still has a vital role to play in civic life.

Joan Didion, who left her native California and moved to New York many years ago, would look at Napa today and see immense contradictions, not only between oligarchy and democracy, but also between the beauty of the land itself and the rapacity of an industry driven by greed.

Late on a hot, sunny Friday afternoon, I said goodbye to Ellsworth and Anderson, promised to return and went home a sober man. Indeed, we had not had a sip of wine in a place made world famous by wine.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.)


  1. George Hollister April 25, 2018

    “Feisty and fearless, she knows from her own professional experience, what the rules are, and how they’re routinely broken by the big corporations that have snapped up land, blasted rock with dynamite, privatized watersheds and polluted streams and creeks with harmful herbicides and chemicals.”

    North Coast Water Quality Control Board is the responsible entity here. If all these dastardly deeds were being committed, the concerned should take photos and present them to the Board. Three minutes is the allowed time. That is enough. Much easier than Measure C. As all farmers in Mendocino County, including cannabis farmers, know, Water Quality is overly aggressive and beyond the pail when put on the trail.

    • Jonah Raskin April 27, 2018

      I am told by the Napa folks that complaining to the Water Control Board doesn’t work, that there are so many violations and so few inspectors and that the winery/ vineyard people disregard “red tags” and just continue to do what they’re doing. It does seem to me to be out of control – I mean the wine industry. The people in it have so much power and money that they don’t care a fig around rules. There is little if any enforcement. Not long ago a neighbor of mine cut down a stand of redwoods in the watershed I was also in. He did this at 5:30 am, was out of there by 8 am, the logs all hauled away. I called the county. The person said she could only take my complaint and report the incident if I could actually see the cutting down of the trees. It was over by the time I called and the office wasn’t opened at the time the cutting did take place. Similar incident at the college – Sonoma State. A faculty member was talking home university equipment. I was a whistle blower. The person in Sacramento asked if I could see the person at that moment taking the equipment off campus at that moment. I said no. She said I can’t help you.

      • George Hollister April 27, 2018

        Jonah, don’t depend on “what I am told told”. Best to check it out first hand. Also, the county of Napa does not regulate the cutting of redwood trees on private land, CalFire does.

        • Jonah Raskin April 27, 2018

          I am continuing to work on the grape/ wine story and will dig deeper and have a clearer understanding. Big wine and big grapes don’t want the big story to be told. They want to hear how wonderful their wine is

          • George Hollister April 28, 2018

            Exactly. I one time stated to a long time local farmer, now in grapes, that success in grapes depended on two things; good marketing and good management. He replied, “how about good marketing.” The competition is stiff, and marketing is everything. The challenge is not in growing grapes, which takes considerable knowledge, but in marketing the wine. Big picture? With everyone’s head down, nose to the grindstone, there is no big picture. Or at least few are in a position to see it. Maybe a banker, or an investment broker can.

            Marketing is everything. Even for “big wine” and “big grapes”. If someone finds a special market niche, and makes some extra money, watch out. Everyone else soon piles in and the margins go back to where they were. It is in the nature of things. Is this bad? It is good for all the people who get employed and for the people who are part of the grape/wine economy. Good for Napa. Great for Napa. There was a time when Napa was a satellite of Mare Island, and depended on it. When Mare Island closed, Napa went into the dump. But the small town has now recovered, and is a hub for Bay Area weekenders wanting the wine experience.

            Remember, the backbone of the industry are workers, who do everything from prune grapes, to run equipment, to manage vineyards, to making wine(some pretty damn good), to managing tasting rooms, etc. They have families. They are good people, like what they do, and they are paid well. Whoever these “big grape” or “big wine” people are, attacking them “just because”, can result in collateral damage.

  2. Richard Reeves April 25, 2018


    Sorry to be Grammar Nazi, But it’s “Stranger in a strange LAND”. One of my all time favorites BTW. We’d I think be a better people were it required reading.

    Best, Richard

    • Jonah Raskin April 27, 2018

      You are quite right. I am sorry to get the title wrong. I wish I was better than I am. I try toi get it right. Doesn’t always happened. Thanks, Jonah

  3. George Hollister April 27, 2018

    I don’t grow grapes, and have no intention to ever doing so, either. But I talk to vineyard, and wine people all the time. All good people. They like what they do, work hard, are committed, and are eternally optimistic about the future. There are two popular fantasies about growing wine grapes, and making wine: The profits are big, and the regulations are few. These are fantasies held only from those on the outside looking in. Look at the wine shelves in your local store. How many brands do you see? What differentiates these brands? How much market leverage do any of these brands have?

    One situation I often see, are outsiders with money to burn, who treat their vineyard “investment” as a money pit. I have to wonder how much money put in the money pit actually pays off down the road. I wonder when disillusionment will set in? Maybe a big loss? Maybe bankruptcy? But these outsiders, for the most part, hire good people to create their vineyard dream. Are these good people perfect? No one is, and no amount of regulation will change that.

    The grape growing/wine business, like all agriculture, everywhere, is a tough business. One had better like doing it, beyond the money that might be made.

    • Mark Scaramella April 27, 2018

      Large parts of these broad claims are highly arguable. Too tedious for full argument here but here’s one: while there’s a lot of expensive paperwork required of grape growers (for which I sympathize) there’s no real regulation of what they do. Since the late 1970s not one vineyard or winery in Anderson Valley has been cited for a violation of a single thing other than paper violations (and even those are few). Not once. Ever. No labor law violations, no water violations, no pesticide violations, no permit term violations, not one. By comparison, the timber industry, back when it was more active and to this day has been cited lots of times for both major and minor violations of all these things, even though I would argue that the timber industry follows the rules overall much better than the wine industry does. Of course “wine people” are going to say what you point out here, while at the same time you chide Raskin for his use of “what I am told.” Come on. Yes, of course, it’s easy to lose money in grapes (mostly by newbie incompetents with money to burn). But if you can sell an $8 bottle (at most) in a direct to customer sale for $40 or more (or $20 or more wholesale to a distributor) you certainly do make a big profit. Remember, most wine labor is for just a few weeks a year. Whereas timber is months at a time or more. Etc. Etc. Etc.
      PS. Even so, the wine people whine a lot more than the timber people ever did too.

      • George Hollister April 28, 2018

        Mark, put money into a vineyard and watch the profits grow. One of my neighbors told me one time, the way to end up with a million dollars growing grapes was to start with five million and wait.

        The big difference between timber and vineyard, is there are times when a timber property can look God awful ugly. Not so with vineyard. The God awful ugly look provokes the collective imagination of the unknowing that there is environmental disaster; erosion, soil destruction, dead fish, no deer, no bears, and redwoods gone forever. Of course none of this is the case, or ever was.

        The collective imagination can be a powerful thing. And it can be a dangerous thing as well when driven by a political narrative, and not science. This applies to both anti timber and anti vineyard activism. As I have said before, we have not progressed beyond the time when Jews were blamed and killed for causing the Black Death. That same mindset is alive and very active here in Mendocino County.

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