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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, August 26, 2013, 6:25 am

Richard Mendelson: Multidimentional look needed on guarding Napa Valley ag

Mendelson: ‘Wine business doesn’t exist in a vacuum’

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    Richard Mendelson

    Richard Mendelson, who heads the wine practice for Napa-based law firm Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, has been a leading wine and land-use law expert in defending the distinctiveness of American Viticutural Areas and the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.

    He’ll be moderating a panel discussion at the Business Journal‘s Impact Napa: Wine conference on Thursday. Panelists are vintner and hotelier Bill Harlan, grower and vintner Bruce Phillips, vintner Peter Mondavi Jr. and agricultural property appraiser Tony Correia.

    Most notably, Mr. Mendelson helped guide California legislation that protected the Napa Valley appellation in law and defended Napa Valley Vintners in a case that led to a 2004 ruling by the state Supreme Court that upheld that protection.

    Mr. Mendelson talked with the Business Journal about key Napa Valley wine industry issues the panel likely will tackle.

    What’s the future look like for Napa Valley’s economy?

    Last year we focused on whether the wine industry was, indeed, coming out of the recession. This year our focus is firmly on the future and the future challenges for Napa Valley, both locally and globally.

    In Napa, we think we’re the center of the world, but it’s a big world out there. The wine business doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It involves the hospitality industry and residents. It’s not all wine-centric.

    Charting our future course as the country’s preeminent winegrowing region, and the place we call home, is a multidimensional exercise. It involves active discussions and open cooperation about a wide range of economic, environmental and social issues among our vintners and growers, residents, government officials, visitors, and consumers worldwide.

    What is the importance of land-use laws in Napa Valley?

    Preserving agricultural as the highest and best use of land in the agricultural zoning districts of Napa Valley has long been, and remains today, our top priority, as recognized in the Napa County General Plan.

    We should be proud of the steps we have taken as a community over the past 50 years to protect agriculture. Principal among those efforts are the Ag Preserve, adopted in 1968 by local visionaries, the Winery Definition Ordinance, adopted in 1990 with the support of local vintners and growers, and the conservation regulations of 1991.

    The Ag Preserve and Winery Definition Ordinance are all about the fact that the highest and best use in Napa County is agriculture. How do preserve that central tenet in the hearts and minds of people?

    These principal laws are brought up and extended regularly. The Ag Preserve was discussed heavily and extended about two years ago, or else it would have expired in 2020. The Winery Definition Ordinance continues to be a subject for discussion with winery marketing events. Local conversation regulations need to find their way amid very complicated state and federal environmental laws.

    How do we maintain these commitments? Napa is part of a global community and face competition from areas with much lower costs of production.

    How do these laws fit with the county climate action plan?

    I would not be surprised if [the forthcoming Napa County Climate Action Plan] comes up. It is part of a statewide commitment through AB 32 to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. In the wine industry, one of the issues is that in many respects it is out in front with standards becoming stricter and stricter. The wine industry would like to take credit for what it has already been done. There are also fairness issues, because emissions come from not just vineyards and wineries but also public works projects.

    Can the Ag Preserve co-exist with calls for more housing under SB 375?

    How do we meet the requirements for affordable housing, and how it is to be shared between county and city? We need to make sure the Ag Preserve land stays in vines. Some think you can do more housing with urban limit lines and other measures. That’s a prime example of why the whole community needs to share in the discussion.

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