Wine and Water Watch (WWW) Challenges Northern California’s Invasive Wine Empire

By Shepherd Bliss, a co-founder of Wine and Water Watch, who farms, was previously taught at college, and has contributed to 24 books. You can reach him at

Activists objecting to the over-growth of the wine/hospitality industry in rural areas of four Northern California counties have met monthly for half a year. At their August 15 meeting in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, one of the wine industry’s epicenters, they agreed to name themselves Wine and Water Watch (WWW).

They ratified the following mission statement: “We challenge the over-development of the wine tourism industry and promote ethical land and water use. We advocate agricultural practices that are ecologically regenerative.”

The new WWW name replaces the temporary name of Four County Network, which was agreed upon at the third meeting. The group met previously in
Middletown, Lake County, Jenner on the Sonoma County coast, twice in Calistoga, Napa County, and in unincorporated Graton, Sonoma County. Attendance has varied from around two-dozen to over 50 activists, by invitation only.

The group has studied the wine industry and criticized its over-expansion, especially in rural areas. Participants have published some of their research widely, attended meetings of Sonoma County’s Wine Advisory Group, which is dominated by the wine industry, been interviewed by newspapers, on the radio and TV, and held protest signs in Napa County. They have sent many letters to editors and government officials. A mass movement seems to be emerging.

Among those participating in WWW have been activists from various groups, including Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Napa Vision 2050, Hidden Valley Lake Watershed, Valley of the Moon Alliance, Westside Association to Save Agriculture, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers. They speak at the meetings as individuals, rather than as representatives of groups.

Participants include organic farmers, grape-growers, wine-makers, lawyers, artists, writers, parents, community activists, and others concerned about the future of the counties, towns, and mainly rural areas where they live.

About thirty people attended the Aug. 15 monthly meeting. Community advocate and grape-grower Judith Olney, who chairs the Westside Community Association Advisory group and works with the Sonoma County Water Coalition, welcomed about 30 people to the Healdsburg meeting. She distributed a list of 30 groups in Sonoma County working on related issues.

“I have a strong interest in pesticide contamination,” revealed Lake County’s Elizabeth Montgomery. “The Wild Diamond vineyard proposed would be on top of a vulnerable aquifer and close to my home. I do not appreciate being driven out of my home by pesticides.”

“Don’t let the well go dry,” author Jonah Raskin remembered his father teaching him. In fact, wells have been going dry throughout California in this fourth straight drought year, especially when a new vineyard moves in next door or expands.

Raskin reported on a book he is writing for the University of California Press on water. “Water is complicated. I’ve seen some wineries making important changes, due to the pressure.”

“Wineries, Wineries, Wineries”

“I’m concerned with all these wineries, wineries, wineries,” declared David Garden of Napa County. “The single crop for Napa is now grapes.” During his childhood “in l940 there were five wineries, whereas there are now 500. We had almonds and all kinds of food crops.”

“The degradation of the quality of life and small town character is what concerns me,” Denise Hunt of Healdsburg said. “We need to learn how to work with people on all sides. Healdsburg has been ranked as one of the top ten small towns.” This generates excessive tourism and drives up prices on essentials, such as housing and food.

Terry and Carolyn Harrison of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) also commented on the importance of working with both agricultural and environmental groups.

“Entertainment, hospitality, and tourism is what is killing the rural areas,” commented one person. “Wineries as event centers displace local food production.”

“Bad legislation is worse then no legislation,” claimed attorney Jerry Bernhaut. “It can be used to do damage.”

“Our Facebook Page has reached over 12,000 people,” reported Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC) co-funder Padi Selwyn.

“We’re facing large developments,” reported Linda Hale of Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA). “Chinese businessmen are already here with two huge wineries/event centers planned in Sonoma Valley.”

Sonoma State University’s (SSU) Business School sends professors to China and elsewhere in Asia to recruit investments. The rising Chinese middle class has a taste for California wine.

SSU recently received a $500,000 donation from a Napa winery, which it uses to transform a building that used to be called The Commons. Students and faculty would eat, meet, and hold meetings and even classes there, where this reporter taught writing. Ironically, SSU’s Commons has been taken over by the wine industry, which hoards water, land, and other essentials to human, animal, and plant life.

“The Syar Quarry in Napa County wants to expand,” reported Kathy Felch. “It proposes to double its operations. It has a history of environmental violations and has been sued five times.”

Olney reported observing meetings of the Wine Advisory Group, which was created to advise Sonoma County’s Planning and Resources Management Department. “The group is 2/3’s wine industry and 1/3 community. We have learned that the county is out of compliance with its own General Plan. Outlaw wineries break the rules and get off scot free.”

“We need to get serious about fundraising and reach out to urban people in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We could do some crowd-funding,” commented Geoff Ellsworth of St. Helena, Napa.

Organizational Development (OD) Options

Reflecting on the different types of groups emerging to challenge Northern California’s growing Big Wine, there seems to be three compatible models: business, government, and grass roots collaborative community groups.

Business models tend to have clear leadership, which is often top-down, and can be somewhat secretive. They tend to be more efficient. The government types understand and focus on administrative remedies, which often requires attending many meetings.

WWW is a grass roots group, with participation from individuals of the other two models. It has taken six months to decide upon a name and mission statement. Other groups have made these decisions earlier in their organizational development (OD). Each type of group has merits.

Direct, deep democracy with one-person-one-vote can be slow, cumbersome, sometimes messy, and even frustrating. On the other hand, it can build community and buy-in by participants, which is important for long-term struggles, which will be necessary with the powerful Big Wine.

The OD model of “forming, storming, norming, and performing” can be helpful. WWW is still in the first stage of forming. According to this theory, some storming is likely to happen. Then an issue is how it is resolved. WWW has no steering committee yet. The only committee so far has been the mission statement committee.

Some WWW members feel that it is important to first try all official channels possible, but the struggle against Big Wine can only be won “on the ground.” Through picketing, groups such as Watertrough Children’s Alliance and Apple Roots Group were able to get a “Stop Work” order on a Paul Hobbs’ vineyard, at least temporarily, and caused him to shut down a wine tasting that was being peacefully picketed.

The Grape Rush in Sonoma and Napa counties has made grapes an invasive species that threatens to consume water and land. Sonoma County has over 60,000 acres in grapes and only about 12,000 in food crops.

One cannot live on wine alone. Life is impossible without either food or water. The once diverse agriculture of Sonoma and Napa Counties now has to import more of our food, as the Grape Empire colonizes more land and water, Nearby Lake and Mendocino counties are at risk.

What might be described as a “mass movement,” or even a “rural rebellion,” seems to be growing here in Northern California.

For more information: (in process)

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  1. allan

    Thank you for this post. Many of the same issues also affect the Finger Lakes region of NYS. (Except for the water shortage – at least for the time being.) The wine and tourism industry here has exploded in the last decade. Its size and influence helped in securing the ban on fracking that the state government just made permanent. And a thriving local industry has been good news in what is otherwise a depressed region. But the changes wrought have resulted in winners and losers and have changed the sense of place. It will be interesting to see whether groups in the Finger Lakes emerge with aims similar to those of WWW.

    More directly on the topic of the nature of the wine tourism industrial complex the writer describes, there is:

    Allegations of racism after a black women’s book club is ordered off Calif. wine train

  2. washunate

    Good luck! The scale of the misuse of land and water for industrial purposes is one of our great challenges.

    And of course more deeply, the misallocation of capital for higher end resource consumption to which big winery event centers cater is the direct result of the long-term growth of inequality.

  3. Tom Stone

    It’s not just the water usage, the pesticides and the cavalier attitude toward the environment and local residents (Personified by Paul Hobbs), Monoculture leads to plagues of one sort or another.
    These all need to be addressed.
    I am seeing more cider apples and Olive trees being planted, which is nice, but I am also seeing a lot more vineyard land being planted, a big swath on Bloomfield Rd near Sebastopol comes to mind.
    Susan, thanks for bringing this to more people’s attention.

  4. Marc Andelman

    What should get a whole lot more attention is the notable lack of effort in positive steps to do something about water. Take research on new technologies. The sum total of federal R&D here seems to be a $1.4 MM request for proposals put out by the Bureau of Reclamation, and that with strings, 50% matching funds, except for universities, which leaves a whole lot of the “universe” out of the box. Believe me, there are some really good new technologies that have even reached the market to small extents, languishing due to lack of attention, interest, understanding of what is good and what is not, and money. Meanwhile, established technologies in this field tend to be older than the alphabet. There is in fact a serious need for new technology. Pull water reports for any small city in the central valley, and non compliance is rampant, especially for nitrate contamination. Meanwhile, one and only one commonly used technology, reverse osmosis, does not work well for inland, brackish waters, not where high water recovery is needed, which is always, or where ease of operation, low cost, or nitrate are important, which is usually.

    1. Gio Bruno

      The wine industry in Napa/Sonoma is all about big Ag. Reverse osmosis is about providing filtered potable water for people. Very different.

  5. diptherio

    By Shepherd Bliss, a co-founder of Wine and Water Watch, who farms, was previously taught at college…

    He “has taught at college,” I think you meant.

    Thanks for the update on grassroots action in NoCal. Perhaps WWW could compile a list of bad-actors among the wine-growers and try to start a national boycott of the “outlaw wineries.” Just a thought…

    1. Alfred Schock

      A national boycott should be more than a “thought”. Educating consumers nation wide is a necessary tool. As a retired restaurant employee and therefore a wine buyer and salesman knowing who the bad apples are would translate quickly to national proportions. National trends in restaurants nation wide revolve on quality and sustainability of product. This is a subject that would be taken up quickly by the leaders in the industry.

  6. Highahprice

    Besides what allan said above, the wine industry in Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino is primarily by, about and for the “folks” with bucks and especially for “people” with BIG bucks. The rest of “us” are usually welcome to participate if we leave some of our meager bucks with the wine playahs and dream of one day being like them. I have a family relation in Napa that worked his butt off to acquire a small vineyard (4 acres planted), returned to college for a viniculture degree and succeeded in growing Cabernet Sauvignon that went into a $100/ bottle Cab produced by a marquee Napa winery. Success!! Except that he wrecked his back in the process and the business model can’t pay for a vineyard manager to do what he did. I think he made out just barely ok real estate-wise, but the vineyard took a while to sell and I don’t know him well enough to know how deeply encumbered the property was…
    I will be returning shortly to Humboldt County a bit further north where the cash crop makes fancy grape culture seem like “drug store lovin’ “. Water management, conservation and “fair” use are HUGE topics of discussion amongst the farmers, loggers, foresters, ranchers and real folks who live behind the Redwood Curtain. Other hot topics are wildfires (pun certainly intended ;^| ), poachers, squatters, cartels, gardening and canning and volunteer networking to reinforce the paid firefighters (All Praise to CalFire and U.S. Forestry who put some 9000 boots on the ground in my buddies’ immediate neighborhood!! ) after a rare thunderstorm touched off scores of fire “complexes” on Aug 1, some of which are still being mopped up while I’ve been back east (chewing my fingers to the bone as fire news keeps happening) in the Hudson Valley – where a number of boutique vineyards struggle to make drinkable wine – usually/ primarily with grapes from the Finger Lakes or elsewhere (yeah, CA). The boutique operations around here in the Hudson valley are often low budget startups driven by people who cashed out of the NYC life to start over with a newfound interest in bees, chickens, gardens and neighbors and getting back to the land. I am guilty on most of the above counts (I draw the line at livestock- 2 cats in the yard is a plenty handful imho) but I gotta break it to ya neighbors – the folks who first settled in Bigfoot country after bailing out of the SF Bay area have got about a 50 year head start and some of the how-to’s are not shared with strangers. Also that California sunshine, geography, terrain and usually adequate water (in that location) add up to a combination that is hard to beat anywhere on our humble (and currently hurting) planet.
    A great post for an even greater blog (I may be a bigger fanboy of Yves than Craazyman) May success attend your efforts

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      They have reasons not to share their how-to’s with newcomers/strangers.

      I wonder if there is some sort of limit to sharing in general?

  7. theinhibitor

    Hmmm what a strange article. Hard for me to really see its underlying edifice. Except that whoever wrote it apparently dislikes Napa. Arguments are weak at best.

    As for displacing local food groups, I’m afraid that’s not the wineries fault. That’s capitalism at its worst, dragging the price down so only major farms and agro-co’s can compete (and mentioning almonds as something that use to grow locally is….whats a better word for retarded? almonds are incredibly water intensive, like 20x more so than wine per hectare)

    And as for grapes for wine, it is probably one of the least water intensive crops so I’m all for it. What blew me away was walking into a Japanese market yesterday and seeing bags upon bags of different rice varieties ALL FROM CALIFORNIA. That is absolutely criminal in my opinion.

    Big Wine? Really? Next its gonna be Big Almond and Big Potato….

    1. Gio Bruno

      …well, as someone who spent summers working on my grandfathers ranch in Sonoma county 50 years ago, I can feel their pain. The Napa/Sonoma area is now wholly unrecognizable from the dryland farming/ranching that characterized the area then. Wineries (and their tourist Winery Chateau’s) have removed the native grasslands and oak trees and replaced them with mostly spray irrigated grapes on rolling (sometimes steep) hills and clogged the two-lane highways with buses and cars full of tourists seeking sips of their grande faire.

      As a current resident of the American Riviera, I can attest to the contempt longtime locals develop to an uncontrollable tourist onslaught.

      1. Brian M

        Grasslands are not “native”. All exotic Asiatic grasses except for a few pockets.

        Cattle ranching also requires a lot of water….and not all cattle can be grazed only on California grass

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      It’s risky to be dependent on one product.

      To diversify, they need other crops, maybe even a small percentage in almond, cutting even further back in drought years. Right now, they should ask California agriculture, including wineries, to share in water use reduction.

      With diversity, there is the cost of losing economies of scale, but as you say, that’s on capitalism. But they – the local people, local economy, etc – will be more robust. I think that’s the main point of the article…to diversity, to avoid extremes, to have balance, and to harmonize.

    3. Ron

      Prior to 1985 the Napa/ Sonoma wine industry used traditional wine grapes that were normally dry farmed and had deep root systems. In 1985 U.C. Davis introduced a new strain of patented grape plants that were shallow rooted required watering which over the years have become the main wine grape planted throughout Calif which requires irrigation and fertilizer.

  8. Carla

    A NYT story today, “Waukesha Plan for Lake Michigan Water Raises Worries” led me to this important web site and page:

    The whole area of public trust law is one in which many of us could probably use more education.

    BTW, a commenter on the Times piece mentions that Waukesha is Scott Walker territory; I don’t know if that’s true or not.

    Many thanks to Yves and the author for this post about Wine and Water Watch.

  9. Ken

    I grew up in this region. Most of the land was dry pasture, hills with grass that was green in the winter & spring and dry in the summer. Oak trees dotted the hills. Never rained in the summer. Some of the land had fruit orchards–peaches, plums, etc. Only the orchards were irrigated. I understand the changes from the grass covered hills now changed to vineyards with the need for water.

  10. prostratedragon

    Waukesha is a GOP stronghold, Sensenbrenner’s district, so in that sense it is probably Walker territory. Don’t know where Walker claims is his residence now, but he’s originally from Delavan, down near the IL line (and not too far from Janesville, home of Paul Ryan).

  11. ewmayer

    I do enjoy my occasional trips to Napa/Sonoma wine country (though live in the South Bay and thus tend to focus more on the Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards, an area which gets much more water in winter), but want to do the right thing here.

    Would the OP please be kind enough to post a list of NoBay wineries which do practice sustainable grape-growing? (If they have identified such.) It’s not enough to fight evil, we must also reward the good where we find it.

  12. Brian M


    There are “good” family wineries. I respect the Summers Estate in Calistoga. Not too gaudy, no $250 bottles. They paid for the education of a farmworker and made him their winemaker.

    Frog’s Leap dry farms, so they are better.

    I think Judd’s Hill is still pretty old school.

  13. TheCatSaid

    For those interested in finding out how to improve the balance of their land/farm/ranch/garden, taking into consideration its unique environment and energetic situation from nature’s perspective, the tools developed by the Perelandra Nature Research Center (VA) are remarkable and effective.

  14. ewmayer

    One more suggestion: If it’s not already doing so, WWW should start putting together a list of standards for a kind of ‘green certification’ it would bestow on vineyards which meet sustainable-growing standards with respect to things including land, water and pesticide usage.

    In any event, good luck getting this effort mainstreamed – I look forward to more news on that front!

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