Renowned International Winemaker Sues Napa County Over Demand to Replant High Fire Risk Trees

hundred_acre_wines_h
Terry Bunch Co-Founder / Editor-in-Chief

Jayson Woodbridge, owner and winemaker of one of the world’s most sought after wines, is suing the County of Napa to impose legal and constitutional limits on the county after its demand that Woodbridge replant the same high-fire risk trees on his Napa Valley property that burned during the 2020 Glass Fire.

Woodbridge, who founded and owns Hundred Acre Wine Group, has produced the highest-scoring wines in the world under the Hundred Acre label, 33 of which have scored a perfect 100 from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and former The Wine Advocate writer, Jeb Dunnuck, now of JebDunnuck.com.

According to the lawsuit, the 2020 Glass Fire destroyed over 80 hillside acres of Woodbridge’s 113-acre Calistoga property, including manzanitas, bay trees, and scrub, as well as a historic barn, and left the hillside in a hazardous condition. The Glass Fire, which started September 27, 2020, burned 67,484 acres of land and destroyed 1,555 structures, before it was contained 23 days later. A year after the Glass Fire, Woodbridge removed the remains of the fire-killed trees around the roadway, residence, and other surviving structures on his property.

The lawsuit challenges the legitimacy and scope of the county’s demands that Woodbridge replant the same high-fire risk trees that fueled past Napa wildfires and it asserts Woodbridge’s right to install a small experimental, dry-farmed vineyard in its place that would reduce erosion and serve as a protective fire-break.

“The county’s threatened enforcement action . . . is environmentally irresponsible and dangerous,” the lawsuit states. “It deprives (Hundred Acre Wine Group) of the productive use to which its property is ideally suited, and would increase the risk and spread of future wildfires.”

The suit was filed Thursday, Oct. 6, in Napa County Superior Court against Napa County as case #22CV001166 and seeks a court order declaring that Hundred Acre Wine Group’s actions did not and do not violate any county regulations, and that the county’s enforcement activities are unlawful.

The county is misusing its “conservation regulations,” which are intended to prohibit environmentally destructive earthmoving, construction, grading, and vegetation removal, according to the complaint filed by attorneys at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP. The regulations do not apply, the lawsuit states because the “company did not remove any vegetation; it removed only the dead, charred remains of fire-killed trees and stumps” and did not disturb the soil by using a new grapevine installation method.

Woodbridge, who is both innovative and contrarian, devised a unique method to install a small experimental vineyard program that, according to the complaint, does not require a permit from the county.

“The layout of the vineyard involves no ‘earthmoving or earth-disturbing activity’ as that phrase is defined, and would not constitute ‘planting’ as that term is commonly used because the rootstock would not be put or set in the ground, but instead would naturally grow into it,” according to the complaint against the county.

The method uses small, bottomless vessels that are set on the ground and filled with compost and a single grapevine rootstock. The rootstock grows through the compost and roots into the soil without any tilling, drilling, or other soil disturbing activities.

The lawsuit cites a longstanding and worsening pattern and practice of significant administrative overreach by the county, in particular the Napa County Department of Planning, Building & Environmental Services, which creates mountainous red tape and economic hardship for local farmers seeking to develop productive vineyards.

“The county employs delay tactics, requires expensive, onerous and duplicative submissions and reports, with the intention, and the effect, of delaying and avoiding its responsibility to allow legally permitted use of private lands for agricultural purposes, and to deter would-be applicants from pursuing such uses of their land because of the burdensome attorney and expert fees that are necessitated by the county’s practices, and by the highly arbitrary nature of the county’s decision-making process,” according to the complaint.

Woodbridge owns and operates various Napa Valley vineyard properties, including the 15-acre Morgan’s Way Vineyard in St. Helena, the 13-acre Ark Vineyard outside of St. Helena, and the 5-acre Few and Far Between Vineyard outside of Calistoga. He also owns vineyards and makes wine in Australia’s Barossa Valley.

In addition to Hundred Acre, Woodbridge produces wine under the Fortunate Son and Summer Dreams labels. In 2017, Woodbridge sold the highly-successful Layer Cake, Cherry Pie and If You See Kay brands, which produced value-oriented wine from CaliforniaItalyAustralia and Argentina.

To view the lawsuit click here.