In a land that lives and dies by its grapes and the luxury gourmet food and wine scene, there has been a lot of moving and shaking, as if foreshadowing what feels like the beginning and end of certain Wine Country eras. Over Fourth of July weekend, St. Helena’s Dean & DeLuca (a gourmet food shop with national roots dating back to New York City circa 1977) closed for the holiday, never to reopen. This occurred on the heels of Thailand’s Pace Development Corporation’s 2014 acquisition of the chain for a reported $140 million. Cut to 2019: Dean & DeLuca closes not only in St. Helena, but in several locations across the country.
The St. Helena outpost was mired in controversy during the months leading up to the July closure, in part for decreases in store traffic and empty shelves, but more notably, due to disputes over timely payments to local vintners (some of which, never got paid), whose wines were sold in-store. The retail space, which is still owned by the Rudd family, will live on, thanks to the new lease signed by Gary Fisch, who plans to open the first West Coast location of his popular Gary’s Wine & Marketplace outfit in the former Dean & DeLuca building. The Gary’s chain, which began as a small wine shop in Madison, NJ, in 1987, has grown to include four stores in addition to the St. Helena location, which as of press time, was slated to open in mid-September. According to Fisch, the store is expected to be similar in concept to Dean & DeLuca, but with a more expansive wine section. Despite the promise of new beginnings, only time will tell if the new marketplace will regain the confidence (and business) of locals.
In equally heated territory, water issues continue to raise voices in Napa County—the lack, use and price of it. While locals riffs over exorbitant prices and water quality, the county, state and local interest groups duke it out over the management of the groundwater, which sustains area vineyards, wineries, Napa River fish and residents.
In July, a brouhaha broke out. The State Department of Water Resources delivered word that the 1,000-page basin report, submitted by the county wasn’t sufficient enough for the state to determine how effectively (or not) Napa County plans are equipped to manage the region’s subbasins for the long haul, according to a prepared statement from the Department of Water Resources.
Napa County was granted 30 days to prove that the existing plan for groundwater management was adequate. If the state’s position on the plan remains unchanged, the county will be forced to create a groundwater sustainability agency to ensure that an effective subbasin plan is in place for Napa County. The process can be bypassed if a community proves a sustainable plan to preserve groundwater is already in place. The report is a result of the State’s 2014 groundwater program, which aimed to mitigate situations, including what occurred in San Joaquin Valley where unregulated ground water caused the basin to subside.
Controversy continues over the ag preserve and what should—and should not—be permitted when it comes to land use and winery accessory use. Disputes that originally surfaced with the release of the Grand Jury report of 1987-88. The monumental missive shaped the face of Napa Valley forever with its mission: to preserve agriculture and concentrate urban uses in existing urban areas. The report heeded this warning: “Each redefinition allows a new level of commercial, cultural, or promotional activity occurring on Agricultural Preserve or Agricultural Watershed land, which in turn establishes precedent and legal foundation for expanding future agricultural uses.” Add to that, continued dissent over the related Winery Definition Ordinance (WOD), which was enacted in 1989-90 to protect the Ag Preserve, by regulating winery accessory use, including marketing, events and restrictions around public tastings and tours. Exceptions were granted to wineries founded prior to 1974.
Though the words within the infamous grand jury report and WOD were penned more than 30 years ago, the issues are more relevant than ever, as local interest and preservationist groups like the vocal Napa Vision 2050, fight to keep the tenets of those plans in full force while opposing minds, certain growers, wineries and various winery governing bodies challenge aspects of these directives of the past.
While some controversies may be mended with a facelift and a name change (ala Gary’s Marketplace/Dean & DeLuca), other multi-decade debates may not be so simply solved.
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