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Napa County, California: the Clash of Oligarchy & Democracy

Photo by Jim G | CC BY 2.0

“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 or the U.S. But he has written that Napa is the location where one can see what lies ahead for the nation. 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  today is about 150,000. It has 789-square miles.

But Napa is world-famous for wine and Napa wines go 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 County, 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. Only 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 for decades 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 from 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 impact 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 mountains 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, too. The newspapers have been co-opted.”

By car, 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 Ellsworth in his role as councilman.

“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, won’t be able to pay the rent or put food on the table and 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 called 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 anti-“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 with an unusual name, 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 voter pamphlet.

Still, the ruling didn’t stop the proliferation of the “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 if it’s successful the initiative will end comfortable life styles. 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.

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