Major Vineyards Proposed in Napa

An additional 1,000 acres of premium grapes will go in, pending county approval

by Paul Franson
Circle S
Now primarily a cattle ranch, Circle S may soon add 441 acres of vineyards to the 27 already planted there. Owner Premier Pacific Vineyards will place more than 500 acres of oak woodlands in the Land Trust of Napa Valley
Napa Valley, Calif. -- If you think the economy or recent past surpluses of grapes have discouraged planting, it may come as a surprise that well over 1,000 acres of new vineyards are being planned in Napa Valley alone in five big projects.

Napa County contains about 43,000 acres of vineyards in its 465,000 total acres, so the addition of 1,000 vineyard acres is a significant increase-- particularly of high-quality mountain fruit. But that's what's planned in just four vineyards, pending county approval.

The four proposed vineyards are:
  • Circle S Ranch, with about 337 acres of vines in 1,593 acres (26 in vineyards now);
  • Rodgers/Upper Range Vineyard with 161 acres of vines on 678 acres;
  • Stagecoach Vineyards, 90 additional vineyard acres of a 1,130-acre property already containing 541 acres;
  • Walt Ranch, adding about 400 acres of vines on 2,300 acres (5 acres planted at present)
In addition, Silverado Premium Partners is hoping to plant 300 to 400 acres among the 2,000 acres it has acquired that were formerly part of the Kirkland Ranch north of Jamieson Canyon Road, but it hasn't completed its planning or applied for a permit. This is not the land for sale around the Kirkland Winery.

All the properties lie in mountainous areas in the Vaca Range east of Napa Valley proper. All are in areas allocated for agriculture and watershed, but the landowners must get county approval to plant any vineyards on slopes greater than 5%, which includes much of this land.

Each property consists of numerous parcels, each of which could legally be used for two houses plus a guesthouse and a winery under Napa County regulations. An alternative for part of the properties could be multiple mansions with small vineyards and wineries, but none of these proposals plan such development--it's all agriculture. Nevertheless, some environmental groups object to the changes from brushland and some forest to vineyards

Even though all the property is being proposed for the "highest use of the land" as defined by Napa County Code, the paperwork and regulations involved are mindboggling. Most of the initial erosion control plans--the fundamental document for development--total more than 300 pages, and the growers have to deal with innumerable bureaus to get approval.

Circle S Ranch

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Circle S Ranch between Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon Roads in the Foss Valley area is one of the largest undeveloped properties with significant potential for vineyards. Owner Premier Pacific Vineyards proposes planting 337 acres of new vineyards at slopes over 5%, within 411 gross acres on the 1,593-acre ranch. In addition, it would plant 4 acres in flatter land, which doesn't require an erosion control plan. The land lies at 1,340 to 2,627 feet above sea level.

The property is now a cattle ranch with 27 acres of vineyard. It contains a ranch house. One employee lives there, with six more to be added.

The property includes 20 legal parcels, each allowing two houses, and most wineries. This plan would essentially preserve large expanses of Napa County hillsides from development, as would the other proposed vineyards. In addition, the company intends to place 556 acres of oak woodland in the Land Trust of Napa Valley to preserve it for the future.

Richard Wollack, the co-founder and president of Premier Pacific, anticipates that the project will be approved by the county prior to the spring of 2009.

He doesn't expect any major questions or delays. "The Circle S Ranch project proposes that only approximately 30% of the property be planted as vineyards, and was planned to avoid environmentally sensitive areas, such as wetlands, riparian areas, sensitive plants, etc. The project includes the preservation and enhancement of over 550 acres of oak woodlands, and restoration of Milliken Creek and its riparian zone," he says.

"In addition, the current 25 acres of vineyard on the property are farmed utilizing only organic practices, with the intent to extend organic farming to the entire property. Overall, the project strikes a sustainable balance between agriculture and the environment that allows for protection and preservation, while also ensuring that the property realizes the economic vitality necessary to continue its long history as a working ranch.

He says that he expects to start work as soon as approval is received.

The vineyards will be planted primarily in Bordeaux varietals, notably Cabernet Sauvignon. "As is typical in our vineyard developments, we do not do forward contracts for the grapes--we wait until the vines start producing fruit and then transact with top wineries who need quality grapes," he says.

Premier has about 300 acres planted in other vineyards in Napa County:
  1. Sugarloaf East and West: 186 acres
  2. Coombsville: 64 acres
  3. Silverado Hill: 25 acres
  4. Circle S: 26 acres.
With the proposed increase at Circle S Ranch, it will have more than 600 acres planted in Napa County.

Walt Ranch

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Another large proposed development is 2,300-acre Walt Ranch between Circle S Ranch property off Atlas Peak Road and Monticello Road (Highway 121) in Capell Valley in southeastern Napa County, approximately seven miles northeast of the city of Napa.

It is owned by Hall Brambletree Associates LP, part of the property owned by Craig and Kathryn Hall. They have about 400 acres of vineyards and two wineries in Napa County. Walt is Kathryn's maiden name; she formerly managed her family's Walt Vineyard in Mendocino County.

The Walt Ranch's property's erosion control plan application proposes development of 397 net acres of vineyard on slopes greater than 5% within 538 gross acres distributed on the approximately 2,300-acre Walt Ranch (about 24% vineyards).

Foss Valley/Atlas Peak AVA lies to the west of the property (part of the property adjoins the Circle S Ranch); Wooden Valley lies to the southeast and Capell Valley to the northeast. The property is within the Capell Creek and Milliken Reservoir watersheds. The project site consists primarily of undeveloped oak woodland, chaparral and grassland at elevations from 850 to 2,150 feet.

The area contains a number of northwesterly parallel mountain ridges and intervening valleys of varying widths. The majority of the proposed vineyard areas are located on moderate to high-gradient sloping terrain of 6 to 30% slopes.

Access for the project is at 3438 Atlas Peak Road, and at two points along Highway 121.

A total of 6 acres of vineyard in areas with slopes less than 5% was planted on Walt Ranch in 2006 and 2007. An additional 1.3 acres with slopes less than 5% was cleared for vineyard in 2006, but has not been planted.

The Walt Ranch contains 30 parcels ranging in size from 20 to 90 acres. The property contains no structures, and Hall president Mike Reynolds says that none are planned.

The Halls currently own about 400 acres of vineyards in Napa County, including the Napa River Ranch with 172 of 223 acres planted; Hardester in Pope Valley with 144 of 254 planted; 14 of 33 around their new winery in St. Helena; and 30 of 40 around their small winery in Rutherford.

Will the economy delay planting? Reynolds says, "This is a spectacular property. We hope to plant it as soon as we get approval."

Stagecoach Vineyards

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The proposed planting at Stagecoach Vineyards, a relatively level space in the hilly Foss Valley bowl between Rector Canyon and Sage Canyon in south-central Napa County consists of 90 acres to be added to the 541 acres of vineyards on the 1,130-acre property (56% vineyards after development). It is owned by the Krupp family, and managed by Dr. Jan Krupp.

It is between the Upper Range and Circle S vineyards, but not adjacent to either. It is one mile northeast of Rector Reservoir and three miles southeast of Lake Hennessey.

Most of the new vineyard will be infill among existing vines. The area is largely unforested, with only 22 acres of trees on the whole property and 551 acres of shrub, brush and grass. No trees would be removed in this project.

The county has proposed replanting an area of native hollyleaf ceanothus bushes, but the property owner counters that plenty of those plants grow in the general area.

Rodgers/Upper Range Vineyard

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While the other properties are isolated and largely hidden from public view, the Rodgers/Upper Range Vineyard couldn't be more visible. It lies on the Silverado Trail across from Mumm and ZD Wineries, stretching from the heavily traveled road east well in the hills toward Lake Hennessey and Pritchard Hill. It's about two miles northeast of Rutherford and 13 miles north of Napa. Long Vineyards lies to its east, Rich Frank's Winston Hill Vineyard to the north and Peña Vineyards to the south.

The land lies below 1,000 ft., mostly at 500 to 700 feet.

It is proposed for development by Rodgers Land Development Company of Pleasant Hill, Calif., a family company headed by Stephen Smith, whose grandparents bought the land in 1940. The family also has 150 acres on Trubody Lane in the Oak Knoll District, where it grows fruit for Mumm sparkling wine as well as Baxter and Rowland wineries. It also owns the Smith Family Vineyard in Suisun Valley, just east of Napa County.

The Upper Range Vineyard would be a new 161-acre vineyard on seven contiguous parcels totaling 678 acres (24% coverage). Smith expects approval in a few months, but he anticipates litigation from environmental groups to delay planting. As it is, he says the family has been working on planting the land for a decade.

Smith says his family may eventually develop a brand and small winery on the property, or partner with an existing winery such as Mumm.

Napa County planner Bryan Bordona says that some smaller applications of up to 50 acres are also under review.
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