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Berger on wine: Napa’s Ag Preserve, 50 years later

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Just over 50 years ago, a proposal arose to create a dedicated agricultural zone to protect a small, remote but verdant area known as the Napa Valley.

“There wasn’t much in the way of grape-growing around here,” said Mel Varrelman, a former Napa County Supervisor. “We had prunes, walnuts, chickens, grazing land,” said Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. “We had a choice to make in 1968. Santa Clara did also, and they chose development” (of homes.)

Protecting agriculture entails compromises and can lead to the issue of what homeowners can do with their properties, Winiarski said. Many residents opposed what they saw as restrictions on personal freedom. Some charged property values would suffer. Many others saw the long-term benefits.

Varrelman, one of the most astute people to wrestle with this knotty political issue, said the proposal to create the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve was as contentious as any the area had ever faced and that 55 public hearings were held.

“It divided this community more than any other issue,” he said. The goal was to protect farming, and many on the pro side of the argument, including vintners Jack Davies of Schramsberg and Chuck Carpy of Freemark Abbey, were targets of anger by many who fought the concept.

There were death threats and contentious public debates. Neighbors vowed never to speak to neighbors.

The key person creating the Ag Preserve proposal was the administrator for the county, Albert Haberger, who was not involved in the wine business. He owned a small Christmas tree farm.

The occasion on which Varrelman and Winiarski spoke was a luncheon last Wednesday at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa campus at Copia to honor Haberger once again. (He died in 1987.) Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, sent a video presentation on the occasion from his office in Washington D.C.

Despite the arguments it sparked in 1968, the Ag Preserve was finally approved. Still, some foes predicted the sky would fall. They said it pandered to special interests and would pose many other problems.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of that vote, no one can deny that the Napa Valley, with its world-renowned wines, has built a strong economic base. Tourism, a “clean industry,” brings substantial revenue through sales and other taxes. Restaurants and lodging concerns are now monitored better than they might be if housing had been allowed to run rampant.

There remains plenty of controversy over the minimum parcel size in the preserve (160 acres), with some arguing for it to be smaller, others saying it should be larger.

One threat to the valley at the time of the Ag Preserve proposal was a widely discussed plan that could have put a freeway through the heart of the valley. It would have destroyed towering oaks and created erosion issues — and might have wrecked the potential for vineyard growth and eventual wine greatness.

It was never built, thanks to dedicated men like Davies, Carpy, Winiarski, Robert Mondavi and others, many of whom went door-to-door speaking to residents — even though some vintners were opposed to the creation of the preserve.

Just imagine a supermarket on the Silverado Trail, a Calistoga outlet mall, or a string of fast-food drive-throughs in Rutherford. The Ag Preserve prevented these sorts of things.

Winiarski said Haberger was visionary because the proposal predated almost all of the wine success that followed. “It was just two years after Robert Mondavi built the first major new winery in the valley since Prohibition ended,” which was 33 years earlier.

The success that wine has brought to Napa has also brought other issues. One of the most contentious was a 1990 campaign to redefine what a winery is — and is not. It strictly limited restaurants, concerts, weddings and other non-wine-related activities.

So it was fitting that the luncheon was staged in the same Copia building that originally was planned for a plot of land adjacent to Mondavi’s winery at Oakville. The “What is a winery?” debate of 1990 led to rules that blocked Mondavi from putting Copia in the valley where he wanted it to go. The building eventually ended up in downtown Napa.

One more bit of history was evident at the luncheon. Cabernet sauvignon is by far Napa Valley’s most famous wine. The person credited with being the first to plant that grape in the valley was the late Nathan Fay.

To pair with the main course at Wednesday’s luncheon, Winiarski served Stag’s Leap’s 2015 Cabernet, made entirely from grapes off Fay’s ranch. A fitting tribute from one Napa pioneer to another.

Wine of the Week: 2017 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($24): A superbly refined example of this often green-herbal white wine, it offers an aroma of citrus and dried herbs, a bit of richness from a small amount of barrel aging and the palate weight of a delicate chardonnay.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.