The Napa Valley Today
Napa Valley Life Magazine
Winter Holiday Issue 2008
Journal of Mick Winter—December 15, 2020
As I sip my morning espresso, I have a brief moment of longing for
an earlier time when I could make my stovetop coffee quickly on a gas
burner. It takes a lot longer using this electric one. Little did we
know that gas was right behind oil in peaking. Fortunately we finally
have plenty of solar-produced electricity and, once again, access to
coffee. So it's a minor inconvenience, but just another reminder of
things we used to take for granted.
Today's one of the two days a week when I work at the office instead
of home. It's a little late to go by bike so I check my cell phone.
The streetcar is due in 10 minutes. If I lived much further from the
trolley stop, I'd probably flag a jitney or autorickshaw and take it
all the way to work. Although they cost a little more, they get you
exactly where you want to go. But I've got time to walk to the trolley,
so I'll ride the rails this morning.
I'm happy to see my streetcar is one of the old-fashioned designs.
I prefer them over the new, ultramodern style. They're just as comfortable
but in a more homey kind of way. Aboard the trolley, I see many of my
usual fellow riders. There are also a few people with suitcases. They're
probably connecting with the train to the Vallejo Ferry. Streetcars
are a great way to travel in town. Every town in the valley has them.
Except Yountville, which is very walkable and compact.
Work is pretty routine today. A little paper shuffling, but most of
my time is spent online in conversation with our other branches around
the world—at least where the time zones are convenient. First
thing in the morning, a group of us meet in the teleconference room
for a long strategy session with colleagues in France and Chile. The
wall-sized screen is just like being there, without the jet lag and
the uncomfortable, and very expensive, air travel.
We use videovisiting on our home computers, too. Though sometimes we
like to go to our neighborhood telecenter where we can sit in comfortable
chairs and sofas and see distant relatives and friends on the full-size
screens. Telecenters are also popular as co-working sites, where people
can work on their own projects but have others available for company,
water cooler chatter, or occasional advice.
At lunch we walk to one of many nearby restaurants. Menus are more
limited than they used to be since if a food isn't in season locally,
it isn't on the menu. But at least we know that everything we eat is
healthy, tasty and locally-grown. "Locally" is pretty much anything
grown within 150 miles so it's not very restrictive.
Prior to the Crash of '08 and the Collapse of '09, Napa County was
considered the Bay Area's most agricultural county. Ironic actually,
since we produced almost no food. Once it became apparent that that
had to change, the Napa County Farm Bureau, working with the County's
Agricultural Commissioner, came up with a plan for dramatically increased
food production. A few grape growers used some of their unplanted land
for food and a very few even converted grapes to food, but in most cases
it was a question of determining what currently unused land could be
suitable for food production. Not surprisingly, there were thousands
of acres with potential. Now Napa County is producing nearly half of
its own produce and fruit on farms, as well as beef and other livestock,
and another 25% or so in neighborhood and community gardens. We don't
even refer to this food as "organic" anymore. It's just "food", grown
organically as its been throughout most of humanity's history.
Although some local farmers are starting to grow grain, grain production
will never be as it was in the late 1800s when Napa Valley was a major
provider of grain and flour to the gold fields and to the residents
of San Francisco.
Farmers markets are no longer a special event with high-priced goods.
They're a six days a week, year-round activity where most people buy
much of their vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, meats, dairy and other
locally-grown and locally-made food products. At least everything that
they don't grow themselves. Napa now has four farmers markets. At Bel
Aire Plaza, at River Park Marketplace, in Browns Valley, and near Oxbow-Copia
Community Center. The few "supermarkets" left are much smaller than
before and focus on imported foods and household items not produced
in Northern California.
Our other major source of food is our own home, neighborhood and community
gardens. They sprang up almost overnight as people quickly realized
that if they wanted affordable food they had to grow it themselves.
Now every home has a backyard, deck or at least kitchen garden, and
most lawns have been converted to gardens. Our own lawns went early
on and are now vegetables, walnuts, olives, blackberries, and multigraft
citrus trees. We also grow food in our larger neighborhood garden. (And
of course there are clotheslines in back of every home or apartment
Every neighborhood has at least one large communal garden, and the city
has provided large areas on the edge of town for much larger gardens.
The result? Great food that's almost free, healthier people (from the
food and the work), and a great sense of community connection—particularly
between generations since it was the older citizens who still knew how
to grow their own food and were able to pass that knowledge on to younger
generations. There's also a lot of food swapping among neighbors
Water has been a problem as the drought has continued for years. The
invention of a low cost, easy to use rainwater cistern helped, and most
homes now have several of these. Plus everyone recycles their greywater
and uses it in their gardens. Since there are few lawns left that need
watering—and, yes, the two remaining golf courses are incredibly
expensive in order to cover their water bills—and people who still
have cars have little interest in keeping them sparkling clean, water
use has focused on what's absolutely essential: drinking water, showers
and sanitation, cooking, and gardening. Naturally no potable water is
used in gardens. That bizarre system ended about the fourth year of
On the way home from work, I drop into a few mini-shops at the trolley
stop to pick up dry cleaning, a new saw blade, some salmon for dinner,
and a package at the combined UPS/FedEx/Post Office window. Large packages
are still delivered to homes, but it saves everyone time and money to
have a central location for small deliveries. Almost everyone in town
is no more than a five or ten minute walk from mini-shops, and all neighborhoods
at least have small grocery stores.
This weekend my wife and I are planning on going out of town. Thanks
to the Napa Valley Railroad, we're connected with Calistoga to the north;
Solano county, Amtrak and BART to the east; the Vallejo Ferry and San
Francisco to the south; and Marin and Sonoma counties to the west. So
our destination choices are unlimited.
Speaking of trains, everything started falling into place when the
voters in Marin and Sonoma counties finally approved their train in
November 2008. Once Napa woke up to what was going on, it quickly supported
a link between Sonoma county and Solano county, which of course passed
right through Jamieson Canyon and southern Napa county. That set up
a easy and obvious connection for a Calistoga-Vallejo train. Finally,
after nearly 100 years, Napa Valley residents are connected by train
with the world again.
Trains and trolleys aren't the only old transportation that's new again.
Thanks to regular dredging, passenger and freight boats have started
coming up the Napa River from San Francisco, something that happened
regularly during Gold Rush days.
It's amazing how much quieter the town is these days. There's a lot
less traffic, of course, since so many people are walking or riding
bicycles. Vehicle use has dropped nearly 80% and that makes Napa safer
for pedestrians, bicycles and, most importantly, kids. But it's also
quieter because so many vehicles are electric rather than gas-powered.
(Even gas lawn mowers and leaf blowers are gone.) Most remaining internal
combustion engines run on biofuel made from pomace and other ag byproducts.
Probably the most popular vehicles other than bikes are electric scooters.
It didn't hurt that part of the Napa Pipe development is an electric
scooter factory, powered 100% by concentrated solar energy. That solar
energy plant turned out to be big enough to also power south Napa. A
plant off Big Ranch Road took care of the rest of Napa and each of the
other towns established its own power source. Naturally, Calistoga uses
geothermal as well as solar. Some neighborhoods in Napa even have their
own power sources. And most homes now have solar roofs, wind turbines,
or, in some locations, mini-hydro power.
Speaking of Napa Pipe, that turned out to be a huge bonus for the community.
Once the community recognized that the developer intended actual housing,
not second homes for infrequent visitors, people accepted the project.
And the city of Napa actually enforced that policy, making sure that
no purchaser had another home elsewhere. Of course the market helped
since due to the economy, many people were getting rid of second homes
throughout the valley. Now it's a thriving mix of singles, families
and retired people.
Napa Pipe turned out to be both a unique community of its own as well
as an important neighborhood (well, four neighborhoods actually) of
the city of Napa. Moving the fairgrounds there made sense once plans
were in place for a trolley connection between Napa Pipe and the city.
It also has a train station on the Calistoga-Vallejo line. The former
fairgrounds in Napa are now low-cost housing and a community center.
Thanks to walking, bicycling and better diet, local physicians and
hospitals have noticed that not only has the obesity rate dramatically
declined, but so have diabetes, pre-diabetes, and cholesterol levels
in both children and adults. Teachers say they've noticed the students
seem more alert and attentive. In fact, surprisingly, higher energy
levels may have even reduced ADHD behavior.
Tourism has declined but not as much as feared. Most visitors are still
from Northern California and seldom stay more than one night, if that.
A number of bed and breakfast inns have been transformed into boarding
houses. Some large hotels were converted to apartments, and several
planned hotels never happened at all, but that turned out to be a plus.
The vacant properties were turned into community sites, with recreation,
cultural, educational and job-training activities, and space for small
local business startups.
The wine industry has also changed, with less of our economy being
dependent on wine growing. With smaller profits than they were used
to, most corporations left the valley, selling their wineries to local
buyers. Although prices have dropped, most wineries are still in business.
Whenever we run out at home, we take some empty gallon jugs to local
wineries and fill them up again. Just like the old days in the valley.
Even neighborhoods that don't have a trolley line still have small
convenience stores, often just the front part of someone's home. They're
usually within a five minute walking distance from most homes, so you
can get the basic essentials without having to walk or ride your bike
the half-mile or so distance to larger stores.
Like most neighborhoods, ours has a small coffee shop/meeting place.
Some neighborhoods have theirs right in their co-working center, but
we chose to have ours in a separate area. People hang out there throughout
the day, at-home workers and retired folks mornings and afternoons,
kids after school, and all types in the evening.
Our neighborhood association meets monthly so we can all check in,
socialize, deal with any problems or needs, and plan any lobbying or
coordination we want to do with the city government. It's amazing how
much more attention we started getting from the city once we got our
neighborhood organized and speaking with one voice.
Because neighbors are more involved in their neighborhoods, and more
people are outside socializing and working together, crime is down throughout
the city. And that's just one of the many benefits of more contact between
neighbors. These days we share skills, tools, surplus vegetables, even
baked goods. And of course support and advice.
After the U.S. Government defaulted on its debts in the May Day Massacre
of 2009 and came up with the New Dollar, we in the Napa Valley decided
we'd have more faith in our own local currency. Since our old dollars
had lost 90% of their value, we were determined not to get caught like
that again. Creating NapaNotes proved to be a big success, and now they're
the common paper currency used throughout the valley. Sure, businesses
also accept New Dollars and since the federal government won't let them
charge a penalty for using New Dollars, they mark up the prices and
then give a 10% discount for NapaNotes. Two of our local banks survived
The Collapse, and they've both been very supportive of our local currency.
Local businesses love Napa Notes since they can be spent only in the
valley. Once most of the chain stores pulled out, the surviving locally-owned
stores started to prosper, at least as much as one can in the middle
of a depression. New stores appeared to replace those destroyed by the
chains before The Collapse, and businesses specializing in repair and
maintenance are doing exceptionally well. Freecycle and other recyling
systems are more popular than ever. And the Time
Banks system of time barter, originally established by local non-profit
organizations, is now used by everyone—even kids.
Since I've got a few extra NapaNotes around the house, I think it's
time we went out for dinner. Maybe we'll even call an autorickshaw and
do it in style. More tomorrow.
Mick Winter lives in Napa. Although he is the author
of Peak Oil Prep: Prepare for Peak Oil, Climate Change and Economic
he's not as sustainable as he'd like. He can be reached at www.mickwinter.com.