A winemaker’s lawsuit against Napa County is about more than sour grapes

When Jayson Woodbridge, a former Canadian infantryman turned banker, changed careers and founded a winery in Napa Valley in 1998, he named it Hundred Acre. The name was a tribute to A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” and was meant to evoke carefree whimsy. More recently, however, Mr Woodbridge has been pondering a different sort of fiction: that of Franz Kafka, famous for his portrayals of labyrinthine bureaucracy.

Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.

Your browser does not support the <audio> element.

In October Mr Woodbridge sued Napa County in a state court for “administrative overreach”, accusing it of creating “mountainous red tape and endless bureaucratic obstacles” for him and other vineyard owners. He says he spent about six months listening to “other people’s stories about how bad” regulatory overreach had become and decided “somebody’s got to do something, and that somebody is me.”

The lawsuit came after the catastrophic Glass Fire in 2020, which burned nearly 70,000 acres in Northern California, including some of Mr Woodbridge’s property. After about a year of looking at the charred remains of trees, Mr Woodbridge decided to remove the stumps and experiment with “dry-farming” new vines, by putting young plants in pots with no bottoms in the hope that they would put down roots in the soil below. Napa County learned of the experiment and, threatening penalties, demanded he cease and replant the trees that had been there before, because he had not gone through the process of applying for a permit or doing an environmental review.

Defiant and defensive of his property rights, Mr Woodbridge accuses the county of arbitrary meddling. He says he did not move any earth for the vines, so was not required to apply for a permit. He also points out that vineyards serve as natural firebreaks, unlike flammable tree species. Napa County says Hundred Acre has “created an environmental hazard”, leaving the hillside land “at high risk of erosion”. On November 28th it filed a response to Mr Woodbridge’s complaint and asked that the lawsuit be dismissed by the court with prejudice, because the actions for which he seeks relief and damages are “due to the acts and omissions” of Hundred Acre.

The battle is likely to be a long one. Mr Woodbridge is not interested in a quiet settlement and wants to see the county change its ways. (“If this was Texas, they’d be helping us. We’re taxpayers, right?” he says.) He is a motivated warrior, having clashed with the local government before. In 2006 Napa’s district attorney charged him criminally for not getting a permit to produce wine. (The charges were later dropped.) Mr Woodbridge also has the resources to fight. Having been awarded a perfect 100-point designation by influential aficionados for his wines 33 times, he charges a hefty $700 a bottle.

The lawsuit is noteworthy because it speaks to broader concerns about the business climate in one of the world’s most famed wine regions, which attracts around 3.8m tourists a year. Napa has become a microcosm of California, which is notorious for heavy regulation and lack of friendliness to business. Napa Valley vintners are facing numerous obstacles, including drought and the threat of another big fire, which ruined most producers’ 2020 vintage, but “overregulation is the single most important issue for small wineries,” according to Stuart Smith, the founder of Smith-Madrone Vineyards & Winery. He says, “Fire risk is number two.”

Bottles and bureaucracy

Mr Smith has worked in Napa Valley for 50 years but believes the county government is “frankly hostile to the wine industry”. Rules are strict and unevenly enforced. For example, Napa is the only wine-growing region in the world that does not allow weddings, says Mr Smith. (A handful of wineries were grandfathered in and are exempt.) Napa restricts wineries’ ability to profit from food sales or sell products other than wine. “The overregulation is so onerous that people go around it as much as they can,” says Mr Smith, leading to a “classic black-market system”.

A recent lawsuit by Napa County, suing Hoopes Vineyard, a small, family-owned winery, illustrates the local government’s thirst for a fight. It accuses the winery of various violations that constitute a “public nuisance”, including offering yoga classes, selling greeting cards and hand sanitiser, and failing to obtain a building permit for a structure that is more than 120 square feet (11 square metres). This is a chicken coop, according to Lindsay Hoopes, the boss. Ms Hoopes says the issue in Napa is not regulation itself but “unprincipled bureaucracy” and how it seems everybody is held to different rules. “The Napa permitting process has become this terror of never knowing what you’re going to get next,” she says.

Regulators are under pressure from environmentalists, who are concerned about everything from congestion to soil erosion, and may feel nostalgia for a time when Napa was more rural. But winemakers, too, face many difficulties, from declining demand among young people to climate risk, labour shortages and a slowing economy. “It would be good for the people applying the rules to spend two months working in the winery to understand how hard it is,” suggests Jonathan Pey, a winemaker. Mr Pey has ended his California wine ventures and has decamped to France to produce Beaujolais.

Others are staying closer to home. Caymus, one of Napa’s most famous winemakers, recently expanded production and tasting in Suisun Valley, a 40-minute drive east of Napa. The business climate in Napa played a part in the decision—giving new meaning to a flight of wine.

Stay on top of American politics with Checks and Balance, our weekly subscriber-only newsletter, which examines the state of American democracy and the issues that matter to voters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *