“Since you’re here, maybe you can help me out,” said my host, and without further explanation lead me down the steps from his office and around the corner to his Ford SUV. We got inside and put the windows down, the sun already imposing by nine in the morning. With muscle memory, he deftly guided the vehicle down the tree-lined, winding asphalt roads that connect his winery, Schramsberg, and Highway 29.
Hugh Davies is someone I have exchanged numerous emails with over the years, but never met until yesterday. Tall and slender, with the same sort of “young father” appearance that I suspect I also possess, he expertly juxtaposes amiable and candid at all times. As busy as every other winery owner in the Valley if not more so, time is a precious commodity to Hugh, and I enjoyed being included in his errand.
We got to 29 and turned left, up Valley, toward Calistoga. Before reaching the city limit we pulled off on the left shoulder of the road and got out. Hugh pointed to a small, white marker, one of many, that had been placed there by the county, and explained that what we needed to do was figure out where on this shoulder of the road to put a sign indicating that drivers had entered the Ag Preserve.
The Napa Ag Preserve began more than fifty years ago, in 1968, with the express purpose of ensuring that the Napa Valley remain an agricultural region and not be overrun by development. Looking backward, it’s impressive to think that even prior to Napa’s wines besting the French in 1976, which set off a boom in growth and development, people had the foresight to realize that what they had here — some have likened it to the Garden of Eden, needed to be protected. The reality of the Napa Valley is that it is tiny, only thirty miles in length and in places no more than a mile wide on the valley floor. Further, the land offers amazing vistas and is uniquely suited to growing vinifera — European grapes, arguably better than any other land outside of France herself. The Napa Ag Preserve has done much to ensure that hillsides have not been dynamited for housing developments, and to limit the sort of growth and expansion that would threaten the agricultural nature of the Valley. To learn more about the Napa Ag Preserve, visit napaagpreserve.org.
Hugh and I walked down the highway, taking into consideration the lay of nearby vineyards and the sign telling people that San Francisco is seventy-some miles away, St Helena much closer, the town of Napa somewhere in between. Ultimately, we chose a spot where we hoped the sign would be visible to drivers for enough time that they could read it, positioned with the start of vineyards on either side to accentuate the purpose of the preserve. Hugh scuffed the earth with his boot, and I held the tape measure while he paced out twenty-five feet. Then he scuffed the earth again, I walked the tape up to his position, and he walked off twenty-five more feet. We did this repeatedly, until at last we had our measurement. The sign, indicating the northwest corner of the Ag Preserve, is to be posted precisely 288 feet from the little white marker, which Hugh then had to write down on a form and mail back to the county. We measured a second time to be sure, got back in his SUV, and returned to Schramsberg.
Back at the winery, Hugh and I chatted for a while, and I asked him about the corporate buyout of so many of the wineries in Napa. He took the position that corporations employ people as well, a stance that surprised me slightly but made sense when I thought about it. Despite this, Hugh desires for his own young children to one day keep his parent’s legacy — the second oldest winery in the Napa Valley, in the family somehow. As he spoke, I allowed myself to consider my grandfather’s ranch, now in the possession of my parents. How will I pay the estate taxes? How will I pay for the upkeep? Can I keep it around so that my children, and hopefully theirs, can grow up with it and keep it in the family? Ranches and wineries are similar in that way — the big owners just keep buying more of them, and the small operations fight like hell to subsist in competition with the giants.
Maybe this is why the Napa Ag Preserve resonates with me as it does. I have a deep appreciation for those who would endeavor to ensure that we don’t run out of trees, land to grow crops, or places to graze our cattle. The Napa Ag Preserve fights to defend the first two of those things in a place that, sans their support, would surely triple in population nearly overnight. As I sit on top of a small mountain this morning, looking out across the balcony, over the Silverado Trail at the mountains adorned in morning haze, it’s difficult to imagine a housing development, a Wal Mart, of a sea of asphalt for parking cars as part of the vista. Instead, I see miles upon miles of grapevines, planted in perfect, methodical rows, leading up to the side of a mountain where they then give way to trees. The occasional barn, winery, or windmill does nothing to spoil the view. This is what the Napa Valley is — and should be, at least in my opinion, and I’m grateful to those who have taken the long view and fought to ensure that their children and mine might one day enjoy the same views.
This morning, I talked to my kids on the phone using FaceTime, my one-year-old daughter grabbing at the phone excitedly when she saw me. I look forward to bringing her with me to Napa one day, and my son as well. I hope that it is then, and to them, what it is today, and to me. My wife knows that I’m never happier than when I’m here, but so much of that has to do with what this place has been able to remain over the centuries. I am truly grateful to Hugh, and to so many others who have protected this sacred place for us all.
Cheers to those who sacrifice today for what future generations will surely enjoy tomorrow,