Note: It is estimated only 5-10% of vernal pools remain in California….”Wine has made Napa Valley what it is. And if the industry is left unchecked, these critics contend, wine will also be Napa Valley’s undoing.”
Vineyards versus vernal pools: On Napa’s Atlas Peak, a neighbors’ dispute turns ugly
Save for the occasional bear or bobcat sighting, there’s rarely much commotion in the rugged hills of Napa Valley’s Atlas Peak area.
But a dispute between two neighbors over a small vineyard planting — and whether it might threaten its surrounding landscape — turned into a major clash that led to a libel lawsuit, restraining orders and, allegedly, gunshots.
In another valley, the disagreement might have blown over without fanfare. But in Napa, which has been wrestling with tensions between viticulture and environmental preservation, the fight over Igor Sill’s vineyard took on a larger significance.
As Napa Valley’s wine industry has developed in recent decades — with a grape crop valued at over $1 billion in 2018 — a vocal contingent of residents has criticized it. They insist that the onslaught of vineyard plantings has led to too many uprooted trees, too much displaced wildlife and too many contaminated water sources, as chemical sprays run off from vineyards into streams.
Wine has made Napa Valley what it is. And if the industry is left unchecked, these critics contend, wine will also be Napa Valley’s undoing.
The Atlas Peak troubles began in 2017 when vintner Igor Sill wanted to plant an additional 0.74 acres of grapevines at his 25-acre Sill Family Vineyards. A former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who has owned land, including a vineyard, in nearby St. Helena for more than 30 years, Sill bought his Atlas Peak piece in 2015. (Sill’s winery and home burned in the 2017 Atlas Fire, though the vines were spared.)
Sill said his neighbor, the environmental activist Chris Malan, objected to the vineyard expansion because she believed it would destroy vernal pools — a type of seasonal wetland that can fill with water in a rainy season and become a habitat for plants and animals.
Vernal pools “range from bathtub-size to the size of a small lake,” said Malan, who founded the Institute for Conservation Advocacy Research & Education in 2004. “There are plants and animals that rely on this water seasonally for their gestation and mating and the growing of their young.”
How did Malan know that Sill had vernal pools? “From living up here for 40 years and watching year after year,” she said. In the 1990s, she attempted to halt grapevine plantings by the previous owner of the property. In the years since, she has worked to raise awareness about the ecological importance of vernal pools, including helping a botanist make a map of them throughout the county.
Sill maintains that his property never had vernal pools. After Malan complained, he said, he was contacted by the regional Water Board, which sent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to investigate whether his proposed planting would threaten any water sources. In a report dated June 28, 2017, regulatory project manager William Connor wrote, “It is my opinion that it is highly unlikely that wetlands were present at the construction site.”
Around that time, Sill wrote an article for the website Wine Industry Network Advisor called “The Magic Behind Napa’s Mountain Grown Wines,” praising Atlas Peak’s microclimate and red volcanic soils for their roles in creating fine Cabernet Sauvignons.
In response, a local citizens coalition called Napa Vision 2050 posted an article on its website in which author Dan Mufson wrote that “Sill is currently ripping out previous vernal pools on Atlas Peak to plant yet more grapes. Creating terror in the animal population as he acts to create terroir.”
Mufson’s article concludes: “What are we to tell our children about the hills that once were alive with deer, fox, frogs, bees? Did we let these creatures all die for a few more precious drops of that red beverage that so looks like their blood?”
Mufson was the president of Vision 2050 until 2018; Malan, who also works for Napa County as a mental health counselor, has not been a member for the last three years. The 501(c)(4) organization — a type of nonprofit that promotes social welfare — is a coalition of several different environmental advocacy groups in the county, such as Watersheds Alliance for Atlas Peak, Protect Rural Napa and the Sierra Club. It was a major backer of Measure C, a failed 2018 ballot measure that would have limited the removal of oak trees for new vineyard plantings. (Mufson could not be reached for comment, and current Vision 2050 president Charlotte Williams declined to comment for this article.)
According to Sill, Mufson’s article on the Vision 2050 website led to a significant loss of business for his winery. “I only sell products through the internet,” Sill says. “You could absolutely see a drop in sales volume.” How large of a drop? He wouldn’t say.
When Sill filed a lawsuit against Vision 2050 in February 2018 claiming libel and negligent defamation, he asked for $100,000 in damages.
The Mufson article “clearly exposes (Sill) to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because it makes it appear that … (he) acted in callous disregard of legitimate concerns for the environment,” Sill’s legal complaint reads.
And it wasn’t just a loss of wine sales, Sill said in an interview. “The property has been vandalized ever since that article came out.” A flagpole was torn down, an entry gate smashed and a mailbox broken, among other things, he claimed.
The suit was set to go to trial this week, but Sill accepted a settlement from Vision 2050 in early January. He would not comment on the settlement terms, adding that he intended to donate some of the funds to a worthy cause. “I’m assessing organizations that have a positive impact on the environment that don’t have these personal agendas,” he said.
But the trouble between Sill and the environmentalists didn’t end with that lawsuit. He filed civil harassment complaints in Napa County Superior Court against Malan and her husband Jack Malan. He complained that the Malans repeatedly trespassed on his property.
In one instance, he said, a gun was shot into his garage, and he believed the Malans may have been responsible. When asked about the incident, Chris Malan said: “Certainly, my response to the gunfire is that I had nothing to do with that.” No one was injured, Sill said, but the bullet ripped through three walls. There were no witnesses to the firing.
With regard to trespassing, the Malans have long had an easement on Sill’s property, allowing them to use a road to access their home. “We have a road easement, and there’s been a friction regarding that,” Malan admitted, “but we are working to be neighborly.”
As part of the court’s ruling, restraining orders were filed against both the Malans that bar them from possessing firearms. Court records show that on Dec. 30, the court required proof that Jack Malan had turned in, sold or stored his firearms.
To Sill, the outcomes of his lawsuits were vindication. “I think Napa Vision 2050 are very well intentioned people that have been misguided,” he said, emphasizing that he, too, cares about environmental preservation. He hoped that his example would encourage other vintners to push back when groups like Napa Vision 2050 or individuals like the Malans try to interfere in their vineyards.
But Sill is just one example, and the larger struggle between Napa Valley vintners and groups like Napa 2050 shows no signs of ebbing. If anything, it’s intensified since the passage of the controversial Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance last spring. That measure, passed by the county’s Board of Supervisors, limits tree removal and creates setbacks from wetlands, and it pleased neither side: Vintner groups contended that it infringed on their right to farm, while environmental groups argued it didn’t go far enough in its protections.
Is there any vision for Napa Valley’s future that could unite the wine industry and its critics? Or are these dilemmas now too deeply entrenched in Napa’s character? From the wine industry’s perspective, agriculture has not only made Napa prosperous, but its success has also protected the land from the encroachment of housing divisions and strip malls. Is agriculture the antithesis of development? Or is it, as Vision 2050 sees it, the agent of development?
Chris Malan, who said she did not know anything about the terms of the Vision 2050 libel settlement, was not deterred by the Sill saga. She was convinced more than ever that the wine industry needs to be reined in.
“I have heard some people liken it to the call to duty in World War II,” she said of her cause. “The wine industry, since 1990, has been rigorously developing the uplands of our county watersheds.”
Esther Mobley is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Esther_mobley Instagram: @esthermob