In the winter of 2015, a Hong Kong real estate conglomerate purchased the Calistoga Hills Resort, at the northern end of the Napa Valley, for nearly $80 million. Today, mature oaks and conifers cover the 88-acre property, which flanks the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains.
But soon, 8,000 trees will be cut, making way for 110 hotel rooms, 20 luxury homes, 13 estate lots, and a restaurant. Room rates will reportedly start at about $1,000 a night, and the grounds will include amenities like a pool, spas, outdoor showers and individual plunge pools outside select guest rooms.
Following the sale, one of the most expensive in the nation based on the number of rooms planned, commercial broker James Escarzega told a Bay Area real estate journal that the project "will be a game changer for the luxury hotel market in Napa Valley." That may well be true, but it's likely not the kind of game changer that many locals want to see.
While the Napa Valley conjures images of idyllic winery estates and luxurious lifestyles, all is not well in wine country. A growing number of residents decry the region's proliferation of upscale hotels, the wineries that double as event centers and the strain on Napa Valley's water resources. In the wake of California's unprecedented drought, the city of Calistoga—like others—has been under mandatory water rationing. "We're told not to flush our toilets," says Christina Aranguren, a vocal critic of the proposed resort, whose guests will be under no such restrictions. "I want to know where the water will come from."
Other new developments will further strain local infrastructure. The 22-acre Silver Rose Resort, across town from the Calistoga Hills Resort, will feature an 84-room hotel and spa, 21 homes, a restaurant, a winery and a six-acre vineyard. Last year, Calistoga's Indian Springs Resort underwent a $23 million expansion and added 75 new guest rooms to bring its total to 115.
Northeast of the city of Napa, in the rugged hills near Atlas Peak, vineyard developers have proposed removing nearly 23,000 trees to develop 271 acres of vineyards on the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch, which occupies a sensitive watershed above the city's most pristine reservoir. A decision on the project is expected later this summer. Elsewhere in the valley, about 40 new and modified winery projects, and about 30 new vineyards, await county approval.
"We're in the middle of a business war," says St. Helena resident Geoff Ellsworth, a member of Wine and Water Watch, a wine-industry watchdog. "This big corporation is competing against that big corporation, and the collateral damage are the citizens and the flora and fauna."
The frontlines of Napa's battles are the hillsides that rise from its narrow valley, which is maxed out with grapes. The situation leaves new or expanding vineyards with only one place to go: up. Though the hills are zoned for agriculture, critics say converting them to vineyards threatens both groundwater and the Napa River, the 55-mile waterway that runs the length of the valley and provides essential habitat to several imperiled species.
"It's just been a death by a thousand cuts," says Angwin's Mike Hackett, organizer behind a contested ballot initiative aimed at reining in hillside vineyard development. "The cumulative impacts of this have not been felt until water became an issue. Now everybody is concerned."
Napa winegrowers are already subject to some of the toughest hillside- and vineyard-conversion regulations in the state, but enforcement has been inconsistent and new projects keep emerging. The Napa River, notes San Francisco attorney Thomas Lippe, who successfully sued the county in 1999 over hillside-vineyard development, "hasn't improved. The valley's groundwater resources are continuing to be stressed. And there's a continuing loss of biodiversity." As for county regulators and vineyard developers, he adds, they "just don't want to deal with it."
In many respects, the Napa Valley is a national model for land conservation, thanks to the creation of its agricultural preserve, the first in the country, which declared ag and open space the "highest and best use" of most land outside Napa's towns, and specified agriculture as the area's only allowable commercial use. Signed in 1968, the ordinance is credited with preventing the type of development that has gobbled so much farmland around the Bay Area. But today, Napa's challenge is to protect the land from the excesses of what agriculture has become—viticulture, wineries and activities that look more like tourism than agriculture.
Ironically, one of the prime shapers and advocates of the agricultural preserve warned, in more recent times, that ag's evolution in the Napa Valley had come to pose a mortal threat to open space and watersheds. That man, Volker Eisele, died in 2015, but not before he identified hillside protection as critical but unfinished business.
A native of Münster, Germany, Eisele was a student at UC Berkeley, when he and his wife, Liesel, began visiting the Napa Valley in the early 1960s. They moved to the Chiles Valley, on the northeast side of the valley, in 1974 and soon began growing grapes on their 400-acre creekside property, which had been planted with vines in the mid-1800s. Farming organically long before the practice entered the mainstream, Eisele ran his Volker Eisele Family Estate out of a cupola-topped winery that had been in operation right up until Prohibition. The family lived in a storybook Victorian home surrounded by a kitchen garden and vineyards that brush up against—but do not climb—steeply rising hills.
Alexander Eisele, Volker's son and now the manager of the family's vineyard and winery operations, remembers his father gazing at those hills and asking, "Why is it so beautiful here?" And then Eisele answered himself: "Because the land hasn't been destroyed. It doesn't have houses on it." But Eisele knew that situation might not hold. Fearing that Napa's fertile farmland might go the way of Santa Clara County's prune orchards—now known as Silicon Valley—he threw himself into land-conservation efforts that would extend the protections of the ag preserve above the valley floor.
Fifty years ago, when the preserve became law, cattle were the valley's most valuable agricultural product. Grapes covered only about 12,000 acres. And while many farmers, developers and some winemakers originally considered the preserve overly restrictive, they eventually came to embrace it. Of course, agriculture in the valley has changed radically in the intervening years: today's cattle operations are economic footnotes compared to the mighty grape.
According to the Napa Valley Vintners trade group, the wine industry and related businesses in 2012 contributed more than $13 billion to the Napa County economy and provided 46,000 local jobs, making it the largest local industry by far (wine-related tourism brings in more than $1 billion). Today, vines sprawl over 45,000 acres of the valley, which contains approximately 475 wineries. That's one winery, roughly, every one and a half square miles.