Napa Valley Winery Sues Napa County Over Arcane Environmental Rules

Hundred Acre's lawsuit alleges heavy-handed and extralegal enforcement by county environmental regulators.


"The owner of one of Napa Valley's most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon brands is suing Napa County in an effort to push back against what he called '25 years of gross overreach' and 'obstruction' that has prevented property owners from developing vineyards," the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The lawsuit against Napa County, filed in California state court by Hundred Acre of St. Helena—a high-priced "cult winery"—alleges the county has engaged in "significant administrative overreach" of its conservation regulations and erected "mountainous red tape and endless bureaucratic obstacles" that have hampered the ability of the winery to utilize and improve its property.

"If you're an average guy trying to start a winery in Napa Valley, its bureaucracy gone-wild and overreach on every level," Hundred Acre owner Jayson Woodbridge told Wine Business Monthly this month. "It doesn't bode well for the future of Napa Valley when you make it so obstructive to farm."

Woodbridge isn't alone in finding Napa County officials as hindrances to winemaking. Earlier this month, Napa Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Koblas told Bloomberg Law that the local farm bureau, which counts many winemakers as members, has had "'a number of members that routinely come to us asking us for our help' dealing with the county."

The lawsuit focuses on two key areas: 1) the clearing of charred trees and other flora damaged in a 2020 fire and 2) the introduction of an experimental vineyard the winery introduced earlier this year.

According to the lawsuit, the county claims the charred trees the winery removed were "vegetation," and clearing vegetation requires county permission. It also claims the experimental vineyards are plantings, and planting vineyards also requires county permission. But the suit alleges the county is targeting the winery "for clearing from its property the dead, charred remains of trees incinerated by the 2020 Glass Fire [and seeking to prevent it] from planting a unique, experimental, dry-farmed vineyard using novel, non-erosive techniques that do not disturb any of the soils on Plaintiff's land, and instead force Plaintiff to 'revegetate" the land with the same type of high-fire-risk trees that fueled" the 2020 fire.

Given the suit's focus on fire damage and novel vineyard planting methods—one a massive problem throughout California generally and for wineries there specifically, the other a possible way to mitigate that problem by helping to reduce potential fuel for future fires—experts say the suit could have "huge implications for the future of Napa Valley."

The lawsuit traces its origins back two years. It details how the winery's lands, along with thousands of acres of other properties in Napa Valley, were severely burned during the devastating Glass Fire, which left "blackened hillsides littered with dead and dying trees" that are still visible today. The fire "destroyed" 80 acres of the winery's flora, much of that consisting of small trees and scrub brush. After a year that saw no regrowth among the charred remains of trees, the plaintiff says he removed a small portion of the unsightly and potentially hazardous remains of the trees.

Separately, in 2021, the winery had learned about and decided to attempt to recreate a once-popular but largely disused manner of "dry-farming" wine grapes—a manner involving placing rootstock within compost-filled, bottomless clay pots that avoided "any disturbance of the soil or other erosive activity"—on its hillsides.  

"The method involves placing a small, bottomless vessel on the ground, and filling that vessel with compost and a single rootstock," the suit explains. "The rootstock then grows through the compost and roots into the soil without any tilling, drilling, or other soil disturbing activities. "

The experimental approach, which the winery began to implement this past May, had much promise.

"If successful, such a dry-farmed vineyard would provide numerous benefits, including increased erosion control with a vineyard that would develop the deep and extensive root growth required to reach water sources in the ground; a substantial protective fire-break guarding the Property's, and neighboring properties' structures; a more beautiful view when compared to the barren, burned-out landscape left behind by the Glass Fire; and potentially an economically productive use of the land," the suit details.

The county saw things differently. Within days of implementing its experimental approach, county inspectors showed up at the winery with claims it may be in violation of county code. 

"The notice said [the] company removed vegetation on 7 acres in preparation for a vineyard," the Napa Valley Register reported earlier this month.

In September, the suit details, the county cited the winery for various purported conservation violations, including "vegetation clearing and land preparation for vineyard." The county demanded the vineyard take a number of costly steps—including hiring a botanist to map the winery's vegetation, even though, as the lawsuit explains, "the Glass Fire left virtually no vegetation on the property."

"The County's accusations and regulatory demands were at all times entirely baseless," the suit explains. "Plaintiff had never removed any vegetation canopy (the Glass Fire did that), never moved any earth on the Property, and as described above, did not engage in any 'ground preparation' when laying out its experimental vineyard."

The winery argues that the fire—not the winery—"removed" vegetation from its property. And the method the winery used to introduce new rootstocks onto its hillside did not involve any "earthmoving activity" prohibited by county code. "Indeed, the very purpose of Plaintiff's experimental, non-erosive vineyard was to see if a vineyard could be introduced without engaging in those activities," the winery explains in the lawsuit.

By late summer, the winery saw the experimental "potted rootstock" process had taken root. So the winery repeated the process across much of an acre of its property.

Then, shortly after the winemaker met with the county in September and detailed its position and actions, the suit explains, the county "took the unsupported, and unsupportable, position that any development of a vineyard on a hillside requires a County-approved Erosion Control Plan." The winery says the county has no authority under the law to mandate it develop or follow such a plan.

The lawsuit alleges the county has violated the winery's rights under the state constitution to equal protection and due process under the law. It asks the court to determine whether the conservation regulations in question apply to the winery's experimental vineyard and its "removal of the charred remains of fire-killed trees and stumps" and to enjoin the county from enforcing such regulations against the winery.

This week, just days after the lawsuit was filed, the county, which has its own version of events, descended on Hundred Acre's property with a court order to conduct an inspection of the property. In a press release announcing the search, the county suggested the timing of the raid was entirely coincidental, scheduled merely to take place before the start of the rainy season.

Woodbridge, the Hundred Acre owner, sounds as frustrated as he is resolute.

"It's bureaucracy at a level where they become the major impediment to getting anything productive done, exceeding their authority on many levels," Woodbridge told Wine Business Monthly. "They only do it because they think they can get away with it." 

If Woodbridge and Hundred Acre win, as I hope they do, then the county won't get away with it. And Hundred Acre, other wineries, and consumers—along with the environment—may be better off for it.