Napa County denied Jayson Woodbridge water well permits for four of his vineyards.
By Bob Leal, Courthouse News Service
A lauded winemaker in California’s most famous wine region has filed a lawsuit against Napa County after the county refused to issue permits for water wells on land owned by the winemaker.
Plaintiff Jayson Woodbridge, founder and owner of Hundred Acre Wine Group, says in his lawsuit that Napa County is overstepping its authority.
The county has denied water well permits at four of Woodbridge’s vineyards: Double Vee Properties LLC; Caldera Ranch LLC; and Hundred Acre LLC, all in St. Helena; and The Hundred Acre Wine Group in Calistoga.
The federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Northern District of California, seeks a declaration that the county’s actions violate state law governing water rights as well as the Fifth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It also seeks damages and attorneys’ fees.
“This lawsuit is being filed with respect to vineyard properties owned by Mr. Woodbridge, but the county’s actions affect many agricultural properties. Any owner seeking a new well permit is being subjected to a 70% reduction in allowable water use, as compared with existing wells,” said Woodbridge’s counsel, Jonathan Bass of the San Francisco and Napa law firm of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass, in a statement.
“That is not a legitimate use of the county’s regulatory authority. The county’s infringement of water rights is a threat to every vineyard and farm that depends on groundwater for irrigation,” Bass added.
Hundred Acre Wine Group has produced more perfectly scored wines than any other winemaker in the world. Forty-three wines have scored a perfect 100 from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and former Wine Advocate writer Jeb Dunnuck.
Hundred Acre Wine is reportedly fetching hundreds of dollars per bottle of wine, and is said to have a yearslong waiting list for those wanting the privilege.
Woodbridge claims new well permit applicants are subject to the county’s “new well policies, whereas existing permit holders are not subject to the restrictions of those policies. The county has no rational basis for imposing disparate impacts on dormant overlying groundwater rights holders as a subclass of overlying groundwater rights holders within Napa County.”
He adds: “The county’s implementation of the new well policies violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The county’s discriminatory implementation of the new well policies has deprived plaintiffs of the full use of their groundwater rights, thereby substantially impairing the value of plaintiffs’ properties.”
Other plaintiffs include Caldera Ranch LLC, Double Vee Properties LLC and Hundred Acre LLC. Another defendant in the suit includes Brian Bordona, the director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services for Napa County.
Woodbridge further argues that the well-permitting criteria set forth is contrary to existing well and groundwater permitting rules.
“There is no scientific or rational justification for applying a 0.3 acre-foot limitation with respect to new well permit applicants throughout the basin, or with respect to plaintiffs’ properties specifically,” Woodbridge says in the complaint.
“Access to water in Napa is obviously critical to the wine industry. There’s a place for sensible and equitable regulation, but any regulation must be consistent with the landowners’ fundamental water rights. Vineyard owners like my clients are excellent stewards of the land, and of the water that underlies their properties. They have no interest in fighting with the county, but if the county is unwilling to follow the law, then we have no choice but to ask the courts to step in,” said attorney Bass.
This isn’t Woodbridge’s first legal fight with the Napa County. In October 2022, Woodbridge filed a lawsuit claiming governmental overreach after the county attempted to force him to replant what he considered to be high fire-risk trees after portions of one of his vineyards were burned in the 2020 Glass Fire. The suit has a tentative trial date in July of 2024.
Napa County wrote on its website that claims made in that lawsuit are “meritless and that enforcement actions to bring his Hundred Acre Wine Group property into compliance are well justified and in the public interest.”
And in 2006, Woodbridge faced a misdemeanor charge that he produced wine without a license. Woodbridge claims it was an error by his lawyers, who gave him the green light to start his winemaking operation. The charge was ultimately dropped. Other squabbles with county authorities have been over alleged violations of his use permit, including complaints from neighbors.
Woodbridge has no affiliation with the wine made by Robert Mondavi under the Woodbridge label.