Napa Valley’s future at inflection point over Atlas Peak property

Pending approval for Billionaire’s vineyard has led to existential debate


A billionaire’s family that owns fertile land in Napa Valley is trying to clear more trees from its property to plant vineyards, a dispute that’s testing the limits of development in wine country.

Craig and Kathryn Hall are the owners of the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch in the Atlas Peak, where bottles of wine produced in the area often sell for $100 or more, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The couple had won preliminary approval from the Napa Valley County supervisors for their development and were headed for final permission.

Then local resident Beth Nelsen found out that the father-in-law of Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, who favored the Halls’ development, had purchased land next to Walt Ranch under a limited liability company. Pedroza and his wife had also secured a $2.7 million loan that the supervisor told the Chronicle would serve as a personal guarantee for the abutting property.

While Pedroza has since recused himself, critics are saying approval of the Walt Ranch would stoke similar developments, raising the prices of the surrounding properties, harming the landscape and causing quality of life issues. The final vote, scheduled for Tuesday, will probably be delayed until at least March 22.

“This is a massive conversion of otherwise undeveloped, intact, heterogeneous ecosystems into a monocrop,” said Ross Middlemiss, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland, which has fought the Walt Ranch development in court, according to the Chronicle.

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After buying the property in 2005 for $8 million, the Halls have been trying to develop the land for grapevines.They are seeking to turn 209 acres of the land into grapevines, down from the plan for 356 acres, while also planning to put 650 acres into a conservation easement and plant more than 32,000 trees.

Some supporters say only deep-pocketed developers will be able to plant vineyards, given the potential litigation costs. Dario Sattui, owner of Castello di Amorosa and V. Sattui wineries in Calistoga and St. Helena, told the newspaper he’s been unsuccessfully trying for four years to plant 25 acres of vines in an unforested and flat area of Carneros.

“We still don’t have a permit, and that’s not fair,” he said.

Napa Valley is being sought by large companies and wealthier investors. Recently, South Korea’s Shinsegae bought a vineyard for $250 million. Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates paid $315 million for a vineyard and Arkansas billionaire Gaylon Lawrence bought a vineyard for $180 million and purchased another one with master sommelier Carlton McCoy for an undisclosed price.

[San Francisco Chronicle] — Gabriel Poblete

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