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OpEd: Colonialism in Napa & Sonoma Wineries as Event Centers


OpEd: Colonialism in Napa & Sonoma

Wineries as Event Centers 

By Donald Williams

Wineries as event centers mark the doom of the Redwood Empire.  They are the outposts of the advancing army of attractions---foot and bike races, movie festivals, music events---that flatter and extol us for the region’s agricultural and semi-rural identity---and then exploit and debase it.

This is the story of the American West, again.  Outposts--event centers---are established.  Hotels and restaurants root nearby.  Adoring urban media succumb to the fiction of rustic sophistication.  They rhapsodize over the food, lodging, and loveliness of the north bay.  Enterprising commercial pioneers follow.  Accordingly, unsurprisingly, they issue mass invitations---advertisements---to visit this favored Arcadia.   And of course, the visitors and settlers come.  And come.  And come.

They leave money but extract from the territory its water, rural landscape, and rustic tranquility:  essentially, its identity.

Why do we submit to this colonialism?   We submit because we are cajoled, or we are indifferent, or we are inattentive, or we are needy.

Consider the rationales offered to justify the development.   “There has to be a balance between preservation and growth.”   “We need the money the tourists spend.”  “Wineries can’t survive without direct sales.”

It’s always about the money.  In the local construction industry, I’ve benefitted myself from building.  But I’ve always thought the discussion reduces to two values:  economics and aesthetics.  And resolving them requires reference to our identity as a place.  If we primarily want to save the rural and agricultural Redwood Empire, because we genuinely cherish its remarkable beauty, then decisions should be informed by aesthetic questions:  “Does this proposal enhance, or diminish, its beauty?”  “Is this proposal consistent with the region’s identity or contrary to it?”  “Are we being authentic and true to ourselves or are we selling out?”

Of course, the economics matter.  You can’t pay the bills with a pretty view.  But---imagine this north bay region without all the proposed new developments.  Imagine it only a generation or two ago.  It survived.  It lacked today’s cachet, but people were happy and the Redwood Empire was not just nominally but truly semi-rural.

If on the other hand we’re going to encourage Sonoma to be the greater Bay Area’s cool entertainment center, let’s be honest and forget about preserving its rural nature.  It will be lost.  It may already be lost.  My nearby town of Calistoga capitulated.  But the winds of fashion are fickle, and when visitors and travel writers also realize that the Redwood Empire’s been exploitive, its essential nature overrun, its appeal tired---then new entertainment centers will arise elsewhere to siphon money from tourists.  The golden goose will have been slain.

The time to stop the proliferation of entertainment centers masquerading as wineries is now.  Reasonable compromise makes a lot of sense---except when it means the subject’s death.

Suppose, trying to balance preservation and growth, we do permit one more winery building.  Then, with the same rationale, one more.  Then, again, one more.  When does it stop?  County land is finite.  The buildings must be closer and closer together.  The closer they are the less rural is this place. Must Sonoma County look like Santa Clara valley before it stops?  It has to stop sooner or later.  Why wait till later, when the region is less and less rural?  The time to stop is now!

There will always be pressure for development.  Always someone will propose just one more project.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But we have the right to define our identity and to decline the proposals for more wineries, entertainment venues, and requests for just one more “reasonable” variance and one more “sensible” exception to general plans.

If we want to resist creeping colonialism, appreciate the aesthetics of this county, and preserve its identity for the future, now we must rise.


If you would like to communicate with Donald on this subject, please write him at