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OpEd: Rural Rebellion in Sonoma and Napa Counties over Wineries


OpEd: Rural Rebellion in Sonoma and Napa Counties over Wineries

By Shepherd Bliss

One windy mid-April Saturday, rural folk from four Northern California counties began arriving at a community center at the magical juncture where the life-giving Russian River empties into the majestic Pacific Ocean. Though the small, unincorporated village of Jenner is a popular recreational destination, especially for kayaking, we had not come merely for pleasure.

Our mission was to preserve agrarian lifestyles from further colonization by conventional, industrial vineyards and wineries into diverse rural habitats. Large corporate wineries--owned mainly by outside investors--were the main target.

By the sea and river waters, we spoke about water and California’s worsening drought. Some reported that wells had gone dry after large wineries dug as much as 1000 feet into the ground to extract precious, limited water for their factories.

It takes about 30 gallons of water to make one glass of wine. “Our water is being exported,” reported one person. 

“Save water, drink wine” bumper stickers appear on cars and as signs outside wine tasting rooms. Given the large amount of water it takes to make wine, this advertisement is not true.

I moved from a large metropolitan area to the countryside of small town Sebastopol (8000 souls) in 1992 partly because it was in the Redwood Empire. I like trees and how they benefit people and nature. However, the wine industry’s substantial power and well-paid lobbyists managed to re-brand this region from its historic, natural description to the un-natural, commercial “Wine County.” People and nature lost something by this well-funded PR campaign.



Sonoma County currently has 70,000 acres (and growing) of wine grapes and only 12,000 acres of food crops. As grapegrower Bill Shortridge says, “We've gone from an agriculture that benefitted all, to a monoculture that benefits a few.” Modifying an old statement, “One cannot live by wine alone.”

So what’s the beef? Large corporate wineries, Big Wine, control around 80% of the market in Sonoma County. They take more than their fair share of the water we all need to survive, garden, hydrate our families, pets, plants, and farm animals.

The first people to trickle in to the Jenner Community Center around 4 p.m. were invited activists from Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino counties. They circled up outside and began describing their diverse local situations. The grill soon started for the potluck. After an hour and a half “Let’s eat!” could be heard. So we did—a bounty provided by our hosts, donations by local bakeries and farmers, and individual contributions.

Small sustainable wineries were advocated. Among them were Benzinger, Wild Hog, Preston, and Porter Creek in Sonoma, Frog’s Leap in Napa, and Frey in Mendocino. The problem is mainly with Big Wine. A regional group could compile a current list of sustainable vineyards and wineries. It could also put together a list of the worst corporate wineries and those that neighbors struggle with.

By 6:30 our numbers had doubled to around 40 for the public part of our time together. Our host Ken Sund explained why he initiated this gathering, “After seeing our coastal hills get industrialized, I decided to invite people here. Jenner has a history of community activism.”

Six people were invited to speak about their respective struggles, mainly with large wineries doing things such as creating event centers, cutting redwood forests, crawling up hills, snarling traffic by tasting rooms on dangerous, narrow rural roads, hording limited water supplies, and a host of other problems.

Mendocino County’s Will Parrish is an investigative reporter, trained in sociology, who writes for AVA (Anderson Valley Advertiser). He is featured in the acclaimed new documentary “Russian River: All Rivers.” It has footage on how the over-proliferation of the wine industry damages the Russian River watershed. It is being shown throughout Northern California and beyond to full houses. Parrish described the extensive power of the wine industry in our region and the many ways it influences land use and other decisions that directly impact people and the environment.



Rue Furch, a former Sonoma County Planning Commissioner, spoke for the new Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC) group. It focuses on the recent application by the Napa Wagner wine family for the Dairyman Winery and Distillery on the fast-moving, two lane Highway 12, a greenbelt community separator between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. “It’s already a commute deadlock on that highway. People back up for miles,” Furch observed.

“We need a cost/benefit analysis,” said Furch. “The drought is a tipping point moment. We know the benefits of agriculture, tourism and tax dollars. We need to fully understand the costs in impacts such as water use, traffic, air quality, and changes in land use.  We enjoy the benefits of agriculture and open space, and need to support those while we deal with the expanding impacts of tourism,” Furch added. 

“You are not alone,” Furch said, citing community groups from around the region. One of the main accomplishments of this gathering was that participants saw the similarities and differences in our diverse struggles.

A primary objection expressed at the meeting was regarding wineries that become event centers, complete with restaurants. They host all kinds of events, including weddings. As someone said at another meeting, “The right to farm is not the right to party.”



“The wine industry is out of control today. It pushes for maximum profit,” explained Geoff Ellsworth of St. Helena, Napa County. He was raised in a wine family. “Our town has become an adult spring break. This is like an invasive species. The big corporations do strip mining.” 

“Our current issue is an application by Wild Diamond Vineyard by a Miami developer,” explained Karl Giovacchini of the Hidden Valley Lake Watershed group. It wants to border a subdivision of 6000 people. “Water issues are key for us. Vineyards want to go into pristine areas. We are a small, poor county and vineyards represent a lot of money coming in. But they top off mountains and draw water from our limited aquifers.” As wineries run out of land and water in Sonoma and Napa, they move to Lake and Mendocino, buying cheaper land, to further colonize them.

Giovacchini addressed the “burn-out issue.” He reported on a five-year struggle against a vineyard. One of the things that can work against burn-out is the development of friendships, where people can support each other as they work against vineyard and winery over-extension. The Jenner gathering contributed to building community and sharing information across county lines, thus making new allies.

"You can make water into wine, but you can’t make wine into water,” is a tag line that Giovacchini’s partner Alicia Lee Farnsworth came up for their website Vineyard Wine Watch.

Audience members asked questions and made comments after the six panelists spoke. “Development in general and its impacts on our natural resources must be attended to,” commented Charlotte Williams of Citizens for Green Community in Calistoga. After meeting in Lake and Sonoma, the third meeting of the group is scheduled for Calistoga, tentatively for either May 2 or 9. 


Big Wine regularly violates its permits and other rules, and is seldom held accountable. Dairyman settled for $1 million with Napa  in 2013 for bottling 20 times as much as their permit. “Bad apple” Paul Hobbs settled for $100,000 with Sonoma County for three violations, including clear cutting redwood trees and soil erosion, for which he was liable for millions of dollars in fines.

It is illegal to have restaurants in areas zoned for agriculture, yet Big Wine does it regularly. St. Francis even brags about doing so on its website: They flaunt their excessive power.

As one person at the meeting said, “If it walks like a restaurant and it quacks like a restaurant, it is a restaurant.”

Five hours after it began, the gathering ended. Then important socializing and community building resumed. David Henly from Jenner, for example, whom I had never met, brought in his beautiful, well-trained Catahoula leopard hound. We soon discovered that she was the sister of my Winnie puppy. Before dawn the next morning, we had exchanged dog photos.

This is the kind of things that happen in rural communities, as well as elsewhere, if what brings people together is not merely the desire to make large sums of money. When is enough enough? 

“We favor town-centered development. That is the purpose of small towns. We are losing that,” mentioned one person.


(Shepherd Bliss {} teaches college, farms, and has contributed to 24 books.