After an eighty-year hiatus, winegrapes are once again Lake County’s primary agricultural commodity, having recently overtaken pears as the county’s main cash crop. Before prohibition wiped nearly eight thousand acres of winegrapes off the landscape of Lake County back in the ‘twentys, it had been California’s center of wine production, long before Napa and Sonoma counties had become established as the state’s most prestigious grape-producing regions. So winegrapes are once again big business in lake
County, though much has changed in the way the business is structured and conducted in modern times .
The original Lake County winemakers were almost exclusively local, family owned operations, who dry-farmed their crop in widely spaced rows with no pesticides or frost protection methods to combat the bugs and cold mountain climate. Today’s growers are a varied lot, and generally fall into three categories. First off, you have the local growers, who typically switched to
grapes from pears as the winegrape market boomed and the pear business began to have fewer and fewer profitable years. The second group of “”growers”” are actually oftentimes lawyers and doctors (or occasionally even congressmen), most of whom live in the Bay Area and own vineyards mainly as a hobby or to impress their upscale friends. The last group is the out-of-county corporate growers, who have created the largest-scale agricultural developments the county has ever seen. It is this third group that has caused most of the concern over the growth of the industry locally, since until recent times large-scale corporate farming was unheard of in Lake County, and few of the local people in the industry or government understood what that change would really mean.
Many of the problems generated by the rapid and largely unregulated growth of the industry were predictable and preventable, but the early warnings about the downsides of the county’s second wave of vineyard developments were uniformly dismissed by government and industry leaders as being anti-business or anti-growth rantings of uninformed tree-huggers. However, within the last year virtually all of the dire predictions have turned out to be correct, and the future outlook of the industry in Lake County has begun to look much less rosy. Now local growers are finding it much harder to get contracts with wineries, and many are forced to take their chances on the spot market, where recently prices have been tanking with after-picking-and-transport cost returns as low as $100 a ton for some varieties, which doesn’t begin to cover growing costs. For the first time low prices and limited availability of contracts have caused a significant number of grapes to be left on the vines, and with thousands of acres of local vineyards scheduled to begin producing in the next few years there is undoubtedly going to continue to be a huge surplus of production capacity for the foreseeable future. Set against the backdrop of a huge increase in acreage and production both statewide and world-wide, the big-picture supply situation looks even more grim in the coming years. But still the bulldozers strip bare the county’s hillsides, and the rows of metal stakes go up by the thousands. The corporate growers are still planting, and the reason why is
slowly starting to become clear to the locals.
Everything component of the business is positioning itself for the best post-shake-out placement, which is to stay close to the big guys. That means that from wineries to truckers and labor contractors, the local small-timers are finding it harder to renew contracts. But besides having the county government literally open the door to out-of-county-based corporate ag development at the expense of local growers, there are a multitude of other downsides to the mega-sized grape factories. With much of the development occurring in sparsely populated hillside areas that had never before been under cultivation, roads that had only seen light residential traffic are now crumbling under the weight of double tractor-trailer rigs hauling 40,000 lbs. of winegrapes at a time. Domestic water supplies of the neighbors of the grape plantations have been drying up all across the county, along with springs and ponds that wildlife are completely dependant on. With at least nine large-scale vineyard reservoirs currently in the permitting process, the water supply situation is bound to get worse for the unfortunate neighbors. Ten- thousand acres of grapes must be tended by a largely undocumented alien population, but unlike the pear industry, the corporate grape growers have done next to nothing to provide their workforce with housing in spite of having been able to come up with 10’s of millions of dollars for buying and developing land. Unfortunately, much of that land was held by out-of-county interests, so the bulk of the money changing hands didn’t find it’s way back into the local economy.
Then there are the costs to local government, while difficult to accurately calculate, must be enormous. Huge amounts of county Community Development Department staff’s time have been spent monitoring the activities of developers, along with an inordinate amount of the planning commission and board of supervisor’s time and attention. In addition to that, there is the considerable amount of the taxpayer’s cash spent on the two vineyard-generated lawsuits the county is currently facing, one of which should be going to trial soon after slowly dragging it’s way around every legal roadblock the county was able to throw at it.. Add to that tally the un-reimbursed costs to the ag department for the sharpshooter quarantine project that has overloaded that agency for the last couple of years, which would have been less of a problem if the big guys had used some common sense when laying out their buffer zone-free industrial vineyards. On top of that there is the expense of providing large amounts of health care, legal assistance, and extra schooling for the vineyard’s workforce and their offspring, which is no small burden for a small rural county that is constantly short of the cash needed to provide even basic services. So there are plenty of drains on the county’s purse due to the grape factor, with a small rise in property tax revenue as one of the few tangible benefits to off set the winegrape industry’s impact on local government. Besides the one-time profit made off of real estate commissions and possibly the clearing and grading operations, there is little benefit for the local business community to cheer about, since much of the other big-ticket items like irrigation equipment and rootstock are purchased from out-of-county sources. In stark contrast to Napa and Sonoma counties, well over 90 percent of Lake County’s grapes are trucked to out-of-county wineries, who make the bulk of the profit and provide the best paying and most stable jobs in the
But the downsides are rarely acknowledged by local leaders like district one supervisor Ed Robey, who as late as January 2000 stated at a board of supervisors meeting “” You people have brought us nothing but good””, when referring to the local winegrape commission’s request that the county officially welcome out-of-county developers to the cheaper dirt and less restrictive regulatory environment found in Lake County. A little more than a year after Robey made that remark he privately told friends that he believed the Snows Lake vineyard debacle would be the end of his political career, though still the fantasy of prosperity through grape production prevails among county supervisors. The goal among the county’s elected leaders seems to be to clone or extend the Napa Valley northward, and to magically replace the large local supply of undesirable human elements and their habitations with SUV’s full of well-heeled tourists who will fill Calistoga-type boutiques and leave piles of cash behind when they head back home to the Bay Area. The tilt towards helping the grape-related segment of the local economy is seen at nearly every level of government, like in the recent wildly disproportional formation of the county’s General Plan Update committee, which will determine the future zoning priorities for the county’s planning commission. Sitting on the committee are at least four members who work in the winegrape industry, offset by a total of one representative from the community to cover all land-based environmental concerns. All water related concerns are to be represented by a single county employee who is sure to tow the line of his bosses, which is uniformly pro-industry.
Then there is the composition of the also recently formed grading ordnance review committee, which is just as biased toward the winegrape industry interests. Sixteen non-governmental members are on the committee, with ten of the group having a direct vested interest in the outcome, and five members being involved in the winegrape business. Even some of the four environmental representatives are questionable, since two of them run local environmental groups that have taken thousands of dollars in contributions (Some would say hush-money) from the Lake County Winegrape Commission, which serves as a front for the large out-of-county growers that control the bulk of it’s funding and policy development. If that wasn’t bad enough, consider the fact that in the category of “”community member”” the board of supervisors included a candidate who is not only a grape grower, but who is also working as the legal council and a board member of the Winegrape Commission. Yep, just another average Joe, according to the supervisors.
But rigging committees isn’t all the county government is doing to serve their grape growing benefactors, as the board of supervisors just
unanimously approved the expenditure of $30,000 of general fund money to fund the position of another viticulturist for the Winegrape Commission, in addition to Glen McGorty, who works as the county-funded UC ag extension viticulturist for Lake and Mendocino counties. Compare that to the job done by UC farm advisor Rachel Elkins, who for many years has been doing all the work in the pear and apple industries in Lake and Mendocino counties, along with covering Lake County walnuts and until recently pears in Sutter and Yuba counties too. Also conveniently forgotten is the fact that pear grower assessments had in the past been used to fund support positions for the Lake
Still more favoritism was shown when Lake County’s marketing program was recently overhauled, which is now prominently features written and visual references to fine wines as a primary tourist draw. A focus group formed to provide recommendations for future marketing efforts was also dominated by grape producing interests, and amazingly enough one of the group’s dozen members is the head of out-of-county owned and controlled Snows Lake vineyard, who’s recklessness has spawned two lawsuits against the county for negligence and unfair business practices.
Why is the support of such a problematic industry so uniform among county supervisors? In part, it’s due to the belief that “”ultra”” premium winegrape production will be the county’s ticket to economic salvation. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that all but one of the county supervisors have used the winegrape industry and it’s partners in the real estate trade to form the foundation of their political campaign funding, who’s generosity totals in the tens of thousands of dollars. And if a well-heeled grape grower had covered the cost of sending you and your girlfriend to Hawaii for a winegrape seminar (Yes Mr. Robey, we’re looking in your direction) wouldn’t you be in a more generous frame of mind?
When will reality set in? Probably over the next couple of years as more local growers start to flounder, and the small benefits from new
developments begin to rapidly taper off when the market reaches the over-saturation point, which should be fairly soon if the number of
developments stalled at the “” We had enough dough to rip up a hillside with a bulldozer but didn’t have enough to get anything planted”” stage is any indication.