Q&A: Sens. Dodd, McGuire co-chair state’s wine committee for 7th year

Water-efficient farming, farmworker safety and consumer purchasing behavior are among the most pressing issues facing today’s wine industry in California, according to the two North Bay senators tapped to lead the state’s wine committee.

Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, were appointed — for the seventh time — to co-chair the state’s Senate Select Committee on California’s Wine Industry during this year’s legislative session, something they’ve done since 2016.

The Press Democrat sat down with McGuire and Dodd to discuss the committee’s goals for this year’s legislative session and its priorities regarding issues facing the wine industry.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Sara: Why is this committee essential to California?

Dodd: Ninety percent of all the wine produced and sold out of the United States are produced right here in California, so it’s a flagship industry for the state.

McGuire: California’s total economic impact for our wine industry is about $73 billion and it’s one of the largest agricultural employers in the state with about 265,000 residents who are dependent on this industry for their job.

It’s also a significant economic driver in the North Bay, especially in Sonoma County. That’s why Sen. Dodd and I are so grateful to continue to co-chair this position in the Senate.

Sara: What are some key issues you see looming ahead of the committee?

McGuire: First and foremost, coming out of the pandemic — we’ve learned a lot.

We've learned a lot when it comes to what works for the industry at times of adaption and ways we can improve. So, we need to focus on the impacts of the pandemic, both positive and the challenges.

Inflation has had an impact on purchasing patterns across the state. That’s going to be a focus of ours. Climate change in the wine industry continues to be a major focus.

To be able to protect farmworkers from longer spells of extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and how vineyards can become more water efficient is a significant focus for the industry.

We’re going to be talking about all these issues.

Sara: Opponents of winery and vineyard projects are using the expanding scope of the California Environmental Quality Act to delay or block them. Some have called for CEQA reform, claiming that law has been misused. What reform, if any, is needed, and what are the challenges? Where is the reform effort now?

McGuire: There’s been a lot of discussion at the county level, especially in Sonoma and Napa, on the issue of new vineyard development in more sensitive ecological zones or on hillsides.

That’s mostly been a local planning issue.

Obviously, the Wine Select Committee has been reconstituted and we’ll be working on our agendas and definitely taking a look at that issue with local planners, the community, as well as the industry.

Sara: What can be done about the challenges rural North Coast wineries in fire-prone areas are facing with insurance coverage?

Dodd: A lot of the wineries are very impacted. In fact, many of those are going naked today — meaning they have absolutely no coverage.

That’s in Northern California, as well as the North Coast. Essentially what we’ve been doing since the 2017 fires here is trying to work with the insurance commissioner and in the legislature.

I’ve really worked hard on the budget to get more money for fire prevention to a lot of the communities that have these fire-wise programs to create fire breaks, defensible space to harden homes and make neighborhoods more resilient.

We need a solid commitment from the insurance companies to start writing policy for people and communities that are doing the work.

McGuire: There’s been legislation that has been advanced to be able to help expand commercial insurance for wineries and wine production in bulk-wine facilities.

There’s been a focus on wineries in both wine producing outlets in the North Bay on expanding insurance coverage. There’s going to be continued challenges, whether it’s the wine industry or residential insurance.

That is going to be a major focus of ours. We’ve seen over the last five years large insurance companies renewing both their commercial insurance portfolios, as well as the residential insurance portfolios. That simply can’t stand.

Local communities and the state of California is investing more than ever when it comes to home hardening for wildfire protection.

We need to have an open conversation with the industry because simply renewing customers doesn’t work. We need a long-term solution.

We had legislation that we advanced about five years ago that would establish a community hardening commission, which would set a new set of standards for the community hardening for homes and businesses. In return, those homes and businesses would become safer and the insurance companies would have to write those policies.

A lot of the power is in the insurance company’s hands. It’s simply unacceptable and that is why you’re going to see a big focus on making sure that insurance coverage is continued for both residential and commercial outlets.

Sara: There has been talk in Sonoma County about hazard pay for farmworkers during certain wildfire conditions. What is Sacramento doing or considering about wildfires and employee rules?

McGuire: I’ll give you my own perspective on this.

Farmworkers are the heart of California’s wine economy. Farmworkers work hours upon hours, day after day, bringing in the crop that benefits our communities and consumers.

Since 2015, outdoor working conditions have changed due to the presence of megafires and farmworker workplace protection and health and safety has to be at the top of the priority list.

So, whether it’s hazard pay or enhanced worker protections at times of high heat or wildfires — it’s a top priority for both Sen. Dodd and myself.

Sara: What are some of the committee’s past initiatives?

McGuire: We’ve had hearings on issues of tests in pest management. We have focused on farmworker safety in the past. We’ve talked about economic development and marketing in the past. We’ve had a significant focus on smoke and wildfire and how we can enhance farmworker safety, how we deal with the issue of smoke with the crops.

The other piece that there’s been a lot of focus on is environmentally friendly farming. With this climate crisis, we fully expect to have a more arid climate and the industry is working to adapt to that.

We’ve had hearings on this in the past, but I think this most recent drought has brought a renewed focus on water-efficient farming, not just for the wine industry, but for all of agriculture across California.

California is America’s bread basket and we need to continue to focus on how we can become more water efficient in the years and decades to come.

Sara: Will there be any public hearings planned or ways that the public can get involved with what the committee is doing?

McGuire: We have a couple of things. For example, we met at Healdsburg City Hall in the past and we encourage residents to come out and comment to the committee.

We typically have two to three panels per hearing and it will be on a variety of issues. We publish that on the committee website and will publish that on our individual social media channels.

We encourage anyone and everyone to please attend. This really is the public hearing. I think we’re stronger when residents show up and speak out, and folks have plenty of opportunity to do so.

You can reach Staff Writer Sara Edwards at 707-521-5487 or sara.edwards@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @sedwards380.

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