Wine and Water Watch Challenges Invasive Wine Empire

Activists objecting to the overgrowth of the wine/hospitality industry in rural areas of four Northern California counties have met monthly for half a year. At their August 15, meeting in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, one of the wine industry’s epicenters, they agreed to name themselves Wine and Water Watch (WWW).

They ratified the following mission statement: “We challenge the over-development of the wine tourism industry and promote ethical land and water use. We advocate agricultural practices that are ecologically regenerative.”

The new WWW name replaces the temporary name of Four County Network. Attendance has varied from around two dozen to over 50 activists, by invitation only.

The group’s focus has been to study the wine industry and examine its over-expansion, especially in rural areas. Individual participants have published some of their research widely, attended meetings of Sonoma County’s Wine Advisory Group, which is dominated by the wine industry, have been interviewed by local media and held protest signs in Napa County. They have sent many letters to editors and government officials. A mass movement seems to be emerging.

Among those participating in WWW have been activists from various groups, including Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Napa Vision 2050, Hidden Valley Lake Watershed, Valley of the Moon Alliance, Westside Association to Save Agricultureand Community Alliance with Family Farmers. They speak at the meetings as individuals, rather than as representatives of groups.

Participants include organic farmers, grape-growers, wine-makers, lawyers, artists, writers, parents, community activists and others concerned about the future of the counties, towns and rural areas where they live.

About 30 people attended the August 15, monthly meeting. Community advocate andgrape-grower Judith Olney, who chairs the Westside Community Association Advisory group and works with the Sonoma County Water Coalition, welcomed people to the Healdsburg meeting. She distributed a list of 30 groups in Sonoma County working on related issues.

“I have a strong interest in pesticide contamination,” said Lake County’s Elizabeth Montgomery. “The Wild Diamond vineyard proposed would be on top of a vulnerable aquifer and close to my home. I do not appreciate being driven out of my home by pesticides.”

“Don’t let the well go dry,” author Jonah Raskin remembered his father teaching him. In fact, wells have been going dry throughout California in this fourth straight drought year, especially when a new vineyard moves in next door.

“I’m concerned with all these wineries, wineries, wineries,” said David Garden of Napa County. “The single crop for Napa is now grapes.” During his childhood, “in l940, there were five wineries, whereas there are now 500. We had almonds and all kinds of food crops.”

“The degradation of the quality of life and small town character is what concerns me,” Denise Hunt of Healdsburg said. “We need to learn how to work with people on all sides. Healdsburg has been ranked as one of the top 10 small towns.” This generates much tourism and drives up prices on essentials, such as housing and food.

Terry and Carolyn Harrison of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) also commented on the importance of working with both agricultural and environmental groups. “Entertainment, hospitality and tourism are killing the rural areas,” one participant said.”Wineries as event centers displace local food production.”

“We’re facing large developments,” said Linda Hale of Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA). “Chinese businessmen are already here with two huge wineries/event centers planned in Sonoma Valley.”

Olney reported observing meetings of the Wine Advisory Group, which was created to advise Sonoma County’s Planning and Resources Management Department. “The group is two-thirds wine industry and one-third community. We have learned that the county is out of compliance with its own General Plan. Outlaw wineries break the rules and get off scot-free.”

WWW is a grassroots collaborative group. Direct, deep democracy with “one person, one vote” can be slow, cumbersome, sometimes messy and even frustrating. On the other hand, it can build community by its participants, which is so important for long-term struggles, and which will be necessary with the powerful wine industry.

Some WWW members feel that it is important to first try all official channels possible, but the struggle against Big Wine can only be won “on the ground.” Through picketing, groups such as Watertrough Children’s Alliance and Apple Roots Group were able to get a “Stop-Work” order on a Paul Hobbs vineyard, at least temporarily, and caused him to shut down a wine tasting that was being peacefully picketed.

The “Grape Rush” in Sonoma and Napa counties has made grapes an invasive species that threatens to consume water and land. Sonoma County has more than 60,000 acres in grapes and only about 12,000 in food crops.

One cannot live on wine alone. Life is impossible without either food or water. The once diverse agricultural land of Sonoma and Napa Counties now has to import more food, as the “Grape Empire” colonizes more land and water. Nearby Lake and Mendocino counties are at risk.

What might be described as a “mass movement” or even a “rural rebellion” seems to be growing here in Northern California.

For more information, go to WineWaterWatch.org (in development).