For more than a decade, the owners of Hall Wines have waged an effort to develop several hundred acres of oak woodland in eastern Napa County into a vineyard, a plan that has sparked anger in Wine Country residents and embroiled county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza in an ongoing public controversy.
The dispute came to rest at the epicenter of a wider battle over the future of open space in the North Bay, and the expanding footprint of the region’s famed wine industry.
A potential solution appeared unexpectedly Wednesday, when the Land Trust of Napa County and Hall Wines issued a joint statement announcing the land trust’s intent to buy Walt Ranch, the 2,300-acre property at the heart of the debate.
“We have a bunch of criteria (for land purchases), and it really does meet all of them,” Land Trust of Napa County CEO Doug Parker said. “First, the size — 2,300 acres is very large for Napa County. And it abuts about 6,500 acres of undeveloped land. That includes Milliken Reservoir, owned by the City of Napa. And there are easements we own around it. That’s important because we want to protect larger areas.”
The non-profit land trust has identified priority wildlife corridors in the county, Parker said. One of them runs along the east side of Napa Valley. Another connects that area with Lake Berryessa. Parker called Walt Ranch “a crossroads of these priority corridors.”
Even those most invested in the topic were caught by surprise Wednesday.
“It’s kind of shocking. Fantastic and shocking,” said Bucky Swisher, who lives in Pope Valley (also eastern Napa County) and administers the Facebook page Stop Hall’s Walt Ranch.
The sale is far from a done deal, however.
To make it happen, Parker said, the land trust will have to raise the purchase funds by May 31, as stipulated in the signed contract.
Parker declined to state the total sale price but noted that Craig and Kathryn Hall, who own Hall Wines, had agreed to donate more than a quarter of the value of the land. That amounts to one of the largest gifts the land trust has ever received, Parker said.
The organization has been in communication with government agencies and non-profit groups, and Parker believes they will contribute “a large proportion” of the money.
“But I think we’d still need $7 million to $9 million more by May 31,” he said. “If we can’t raise the money, we wouldn’t close.”
The Halls bought Walt Ranch — Walt is Kathryn’s maiden name; her family owned a Mendocino County winery in the 1970s — for $8 million in 2005, and quickly began planning for vineyards there. The land is in the lucrative Atlas Peak appellation, and would be a valuable addition to the more than 3,000 acres the couple already owns in Napa and Sonoma counties.
But critics of the conversion project have been suspicious of the Halls, who are Dallas-based billionaires. (Craig is a real estate mogul, Kathryn was US ambassador to Austria in the Bill Clinton administration.) More than that, they have declared the loss of woodlands, effects on wildlife and the possibility of damaging local watersheds.
“When I first came to Pope Valley, I thought grapes were a good thing,” Swisher said. “More and more, I see they’re a monocrop. I’ve seen creeks and rivers go dry. Our wells are going dry. A lot of people are really suffering from the over-farming of vineyards. And this project is particularly ginormous.”
The final version of the Halls’ Walt Ranch project, approved by Napa County Supervisors in 2016, calls for 209 acres of vineyards and a total disturbed area of 316 acres. The best estimate called for the removal of 14,000 mature oak trees.
That was far too much for many county residents, who viewed Walt Ranch as an overdue test of limits on the financial power of wealthy wineries and vineyard owners.
The already-prickly subject turned incendiary last year when Napa resident Beth Nelsen revealed that Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza’s family had purchased undeveloped land adjacent to Walt Ranch, and that Pedroza helped secure a $2.7 million loan for the parcel, using his Napa home as collateral.
By then, the supervisor had voted on a number of items pertaining to Walt Ranch. Nelsen and others insisted Pedroza recuse himself moving forward. After initial reluctance, he agreed. Unsatisfied, the angry residents mounted a recall campaign against him. They also filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission. More than eight months later, the commission has yet to complete its investigation.
Pedroza, whose district includes Walt Ranch, was in San Francisco on Wednesday for meetings related to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a staff aide said, and could not respond to questions.
A Hall Wines representative referred The Press Democrat to statements in a news release.
“We have been in conversations with the Land Trust since we acquired the property in 2005 as conservation easements were always a critical part of our vineyard development plans,” winery president Mike Reynolds said in that release. “Our recent discussions with the Land Trust about establishing a 1,000-plus acre conservation easement led to this acquisition and donation.”
Parker confirmed that the chain of events, adding that the land trust and Hall Wines have been quietly discussing the sale for a couple of years.
If the transaction goes through, Walt Ranch will offer “significant public access,” Parker said.
It may be enough to assuage the public outrage generated by the years long fight against Hall Wines.
“Napa is starting the new year with the wonderful news that thousands of carbon-sequestering trees are expected to be saved and more than 2,000 acres of intact wildlife habitat are slated to be permanently protected,” Aruna Prabhala, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an e-mail. “So many community members and activists joined the center in an arduous, yearslong battle to preserve Walt Ranch. Now we have proof that the fight was worth it.”
Swisher agreed. She said the surprise announcement initially seemed “shady,” but she’s willing to give it a chance.
“I don’t want to say I’m not happy,” Swisher said. “I wanted to go out there and look at those trees one more time. It’s such a special place. So I’m hopeful in the end.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or [email protected]. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.