Harvard has quietly become one of the biggest grape-growers in the region
Will Harvard’s wine investment cause further problems in a region stricken by water shortages?
Did you know that Harvard University is now one of the largest grape-growers in Southern California’s wine country? Neither did we. But according to Reuters, the Harvard University endowment fund has allocated $60 million to purchase about 10,000 acres of land in the Paso Robles wine region since 2012, making it one of the top 20 investors in the region. Brodiaea, Inc., wholly owned by the Harvard Management Fund, has also secured the purchase of water well-drilling permits, just days before a law was to go into effect that would ban new pumping, due to the effects of the severe drought California has been experiencing over the past year.
“It remains to be seen what commitment they have to the business of agriculture," Susan Harvey of environmental advocacy group North County Watch told Reuters. "Is Harvard going to keep pumping ground water, or cut back on returns to protect water quality and quantity?"
Since Brodiaea, Inc. began buying land in wine country, the company has acquired rights to drill 16 water wells of between 700 and 900 feet deep, two or three times deeper than the average residential well. This could be potentially dangerous for residents, because, according to North County Watch, the enormous water-draw could affect residential wells up to a mile away.
The Daily Meal is waiting for comment from Harvard University, but the Harvard Management Company declined to comment to Reuters.
NASA and Harvard Experts Find Climate Change Has Fundamentally Altered French Wine Harvests
After looking at more than 400 years of harvest and climate data from France and Switzerland, researchers from Harvard University and NASA have concluded that in recent decades, warmer temperatures have pushed wine grape harvests in those countries more than 10 days earlier than in the period from 1600 to 1980—regardless of whether the growing seasons brought damp conditions or drought.
"It's evidence we have fundamentally shifted the climate system," said study co-author Elizabeth Wolkovich, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard. "It used to be that these early harvests happened in dry, hot years."
In dry soils, less moisture evaporates to cool the surface a drought, in effect, turns up the heat to accelerate ripening in a vineyard. But average temperatures in France climbed about 2.7° F in the 20th century. "What we see happening in the 1980s is that you no longer need a dry summer," said Wolkovich.
This insight has important ramifications—good and bad—for future wine quality. In analyzing vintage ratings for Bordeaux and Burgundy from 1900 to 2001, researchers found that higher-quality wines have been typically linked to early harvests in the cooler regions of Europe. The best wines came from years with above-average rainfall early in the growing season, a warm summer and a late-season drought or dry conditions that generated a heat spike and shifted the focus of vine growth from leaf production to grape maturation.
"Wine quality also depends on factors beyond climate, including grape varieties, soils, vineyard management and winemaker practices," said lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in the announcement of the findings. "However, our research suggests the large-scale climate drivers under which these local factors operate has shifted. And that information may prove critical to wine producers as climate change intensifies during the coming decades in France, Switzerland and other winegrowing regions."
A tipping point may soon come, cautioned Wolkovich: "Climate change is the reason we've had so many great vintages of Bordeaux in the last 20 to 30 years. It's also the reason you might not get a good Bordeaux in the next 50 years. Take this forward: We've only experienced a small proportion of the warming we have created and will see in the next 50 to 80 years, and that will have radical consequences for wine regions."
As an example, she pointed to the 2003 vintage, when a record deadly heat wave across Europe resulted in the earliest harvest in their study, but mixed quality, producing some exceptional wines and some that were unbalanced.
The research, published March 21 in the journal Nature Climate Change, analyzed records in eight regions—Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Languedoc, the lower Loire Valley, the Southern Rhône Valley and Switzerland's Leman Lake—from 1600 to 2007 to get a big-picture view covering a range of climates, soil types, slopes and grape varieties with different flowering periods and maturation rates.
Thanks to reports kept by religious orders and databases compiled by other researchers, "We had these incredible long-term harvest records," said Wolkovich. "It was a rare opportunity to see how something works before and after climate change."
As grape quality and wine character are so closely tied to climate and weather, wine is often used in climate-change modeling as an attention-getting agricultural canary in the coal mine. Over the past decade, several climate studies have predicted dramatic changes in the viability of warmer winegrowing regions—with more northern regions such as England expanding while long-established appellations see famed sites become less suitable or are forced to switch grape varieties and wine styles. But much of the research has focused on recent timeframes or future predictions.
While this isn't the first report on the longer-term shift in European harvest dates, what's unique about Cook's and Wolkovich's work is how they looked at whether the climate driving the harvest dates has changed, comparing different historical periods, with 1980 marking a dramatic turning point. They examined centuries of records of temperature, precipitation and soil moisture (an indicator of drought)—from data collected by 20th-century instruments as well as from historical documents and tree-ring analysis.
"Temperature is a similarly strong driver [of harvest] before and after ," said Wolkovich. "But what changes is drought and precipitation—they become much less coupled to harvest after 1980." The team looked at other 30-year periods, such as the one around the 19th-century phylloxera outbreak in France, when rootstocks and grape varieties were replaced, to see if climate had become decoupled from harvest at any other time, she said. "And the answer is no."
Prior research has found that each increase of 1° C (1.8° F) in average temperature bumps up the grape harvest by about six days. So when might the crucial tipping point come?
That's going to depend on the individual vineyard—which grape variety is planted, the soil type, slope, altitude and orientation and other factors—something the study's large-scale, broad analysis cannot project. (For example, in hot, stony soils, it will take less warming to tip the scales.) Along with replanting to more heat-tolerant grape varieties, winemakers can respond to climate change in they way they manage their vineyards—from pruning to canopy management to cover crops to water management.
"The silver lining, at least for me, is that the climate diversity for wine grapes as a whole is very high," said Wolkovich. "It's a question of how well the market and grower are willing to exploit that diversity."
But she added a cautionary note: "I hope people will take away that the quality of wine will be one of their lower concerns if we don't shift climate change."
Toasting with Paper Wishes in Your Glass
There are many superstitions people adhere to in order to make their wishes come true, like silently wishing every time the clock turns 11:11 (admit it, you’ve done it). At the turn of a new year, wishes are especially aplenty, and in Spain and Mexico for instance, they may eat 12 grapes representing 12 wishes during the final countdown to midnight.
But, in Ukraine and Russia they wash down their wishes with their New Year’s Champagne toast, literally. On New Year’s Eve, they’re known to write down their wishes for the coming year on a piece of paper. At the stroke of midnight, they will burn the paper, drop the ashes in a glass of bubbly, and take a big gulp of their hopes and dreams that will supposedly come true in the next 365 days.
As fire burns, activists sneak into Point Reyes to bring water to parched elk. Should they?
As darkness fell and a thick Pacific fog crept in over the Point Reyes peninsula on Sunday, a small band of animal activists waited for a National Park Service official to leave his check-post along Pierce Point Road.
He was there to prevent people from going deep into the National Seashore, where forests are aflame, and a skeleton crew of park service employees are otherwise tending to a 3,000-acre conflagration burning at the park’s southern end.
At 6 p.m., as his shift came to a close and he drove away, the small bucket-brigade crept in. They were transporting roughly 150 gallons of water to the park’s tule elk, who they say are dying from dehydration — and unable to reach other water sources because of a fence around their preserve — as drought conditions worsen in the region.
“If the park service refuses to care for the animals that they are mandated by law to preserve, then others have to step in,” said Fleur Dawes, the communications director for the San Rafael-based organization In Defense of Animals.
Until this week, Dawes’ organization and other local activists were the main ones focused on the plight of this year’s elk herd. But on Monday, a group with a track record of aggressive environmental litigation, the Center for Biological Diversity, urged the park service to provide water to the elk and remove an 8-foot-high wire fence that runs across the peninsula, preventing the free movement of the elk.
“Unlike the privately owned cattle that have unrestrained access to water sources in this area, the elk are protected by federal law that requires the Park Service to ‘conserve’ them for the public and future generations,” Katherine Meyer, director of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic, said in a statement for the organization. “They should not be denied access to the water they need to survive.”
The conflicting needs of the elk preserve and neighboring dairy ranches have long been a flash point in Point Reyes, one of California’s most beloved seashores. The latest confrontation comes at a time when the park service is considering a final decision on a management plan for the elk — a plan that has pitted the 24 family dairy and beef operators, who lease land in the national park, against animal and environmental activists, who say their operations don’t belong there.
Tule elk are known to be relatively resilient to drought conditions, which is one reason national park biologists and others are reluctant to intervene this year.
“While the stock ponds left from the prior ranching days are frequented by elk . these ponds actually go dry in most years,” Carey Feierabend, acting superintendent for Point Reyes National Seashore, said in a statement, noting that there “are a number of seeps and springs in the area that are frequented by the elk.”
The Tomales Point herd consists of 450 elk, fenced into a 2,000-acre reserve that, perched on the northern end of the peninsula, offers sweeping views of the Pacific, Bodega Bay and Tomales Bay.
During a previous drought that ended in 2014, the herd lost about half of its population, said National Park Service wildlife ecologist Dave Press, who lives in the area and watches over the elk pack.
Since Aug. 23, Dawes said her group’s scouts have observed at least a half-dozen dead elk in the park.
Press said he understood the activists’ concerns, and has been checking on the herd every week. He said that while he observed the elk had enough water, the National Park Service has plans to put in troughs filled by water trucks if necessary.
He was disheartened to hear that activists had brought in water and entered the closed park without permission.
“That’s a total violation of working within the realm of the national parks,” he said. “This is public land, and we would have to issue a permit for anything like that. Just speaking hypothetically, what if they put that trough on one of our endangered plant species? How would they even know that?”
One of the ponds the elk regularly drink from was observed dry last Friday afternoon. Hoof prints pocked the surface of the now-muddy pond. A small herd of elk and a solitary deer rested on the dry, grassy hill above.
But the situation is complicated by the nearby Woodward fire, the result of a lightning strike on Aug. 18. Though it still remains about nine miles away from where the elk roam at Tomales, it is closer to one of the free-range herds and has led to heavy smoke in the area, along with evacuation orders and warnings.
More than 400 firefighters, many from the park service, are battling that blaze, trying to set containment lines in terrain that, in some places, has no recorded history of burning, leaving it heavy on fuel. Other places are steep and wild, making access difficult.
Over the past few days, it has been difficult to discriminate smoke from fog, as both cloud the area, making aerial water drops nearly impossible.
Before the Point Reyes National Seashore was officially established in 1972, the land was privately owned by ranch families. For nearly a decade after Congress authorized the park in the 1960s, the government worked to buy those parcels with agreements to allow the ranchers to continue operations for decades, sometimes up to 30 years.
Many of those farms, founded by Irish, Swiss and Portuguese immigrants, were part of a dairy industry that sprang up as the Gold Rush increased milk demand in nearby San Francisco, said author Dewey Livingston, who has written about the area’s agriculture and is a former historian for the park.
Though elk herds had long roamed the area, they were wiped out as hunting decimated their numbers and grazing herds of cattle took over.
In 1978, conservationists moved some of the last tule elk in the state back to the northern tip of the park at Tomales Point in an attempt to save them from extinction. They were successful, and the “elk population grew and grew and grew,” Livingston said.
World’s largest helitanker can drop 3,000 gallons of water on wildfires
A record-setting wildfire season requires a record-setting response.
This week, Orange County fire officials unveiled the “Very Large Helitanker,” — a 3,000-gallon capacity CH-47 Chinook — that is now on-hand to assist fire crews battling Southern California’s many blazes.
Considered the largest helicopter water tanker in the world, its capacity far exceeds that of the county’s standard helitankers, which typically drop about 350 gallons, officials said.
“In our view, this is that next generation of helitanker,” Orange County Fire Authority chief Brian Fennessy said at a live-streamed press conference Wednesday. “It’s state-of-the-art. There is no other tanker like it in the world.”
The tanker will be based out of Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base in Orange County and will be available to regions served by Southern California Edison, which provided $2.1 million toward its lease from owner Coulson Aviation. Regions served include Los Angeles County — where the Bobcat fire has seared through more 114,000 acres — and San Bernardino County, where the El Dorado fire claimed the life of firefighter Charles Morton.
The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for the San Francisco Bay Area’s hills and parts of Lake, Mendocino and Monterey counties, where fires are already burning.
The record-breaking tanker arrives as soaring temperatures and extreme fire conditions threaten threaten much of the region.
“This is an important moment in a really incredible wildfire year,” Southern California Edison president and CEO Kevin Payne said at the news conference. “It provides added firefighting resources to fire agencies across Southern California right when we need them.”
The helitanker will be manned by pilots from Coulson Aviation and an OCFA crew chief. Agencies requesting the tanker will pay for its flight time and usage, officials said.
Wayne Coulson, president and CEO of Coulson Aviation, told reporters that the twin-propeller, twin-engine tanker was designed with the functionality of helicopters and transport aircrafts in mind.
“It kind of plays two roles,” he said. “It can go direct-attack atop the fire, or, if we load it up with retardant, we can drop retardant ahead of the fire like an air tanker.”
The helitanker is also night-vision certified, and can drop water or retardant both day and night.
On Wednesday, crews demonstrated the helitanker’s power by dropping 250 gallons of water — about three quarters of a typical load — from a standard Bell 412 utility copter over Los Alamitos.
Moments later, the helitanker soared overhead and dropped 2,600 gallons of water, showering the base in a rainfall of relief.
“This helitanker is a force multiplier,” said Fennessy, the Orange County Fire Authority chief. “This literally is the largest tanked helicopter in the world.”
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Hayley Smith covers trending and breaking news for the Los Angeles Times. She previously contributed to The Times’ COVID-19 project, “The Pandemic’s Toll: Lives Lost in California,” in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and USC. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from USC.
Fire, smoke, heat, drought — how climate change could spoil your next glass of California Cabernet
A couple of years ago my wife and I visited the Bonny Doon Vineyard near Santa Cruz to sample the offerings of winemaking savant Randall Grahm. While we were there, Grahm told us something I haven’t been able to forget. It wasn’t nearly as foggy along Monterey Bay as it used to be, he said, and that was worrisome for winemakers.
With each dose of aberrant weather California has had since then, I found myself wondering how California’s wineries were faring and whether the noble grape was becoming a marker — along with sea level rise and deadly wildfires — of an overcooked planet. A few weeks ago I called Grahm to continue the conversation.
4:06 PM, Sep. 05, 2020 An earlier version of this story misidentified the winery with the winning red wine at a 1976 Paris tasting. It was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, not Stags’ Leap Winery.
“About 25 years ago I started to see substantially less fog, and in the last 20 years, less and less,” said Grahm, and that’s starting to affect California wine.
With more sun and heat, the grape maturation process is rushed, he said, and while it’s possible to still make good wine, it’s harder to get the acid-sugar ratio, pH balance, color and flavor just right. Grapes that he buys “used to ripen maybe the first week of November, and now it’s a good three to four weeks earlier. And that’s not trivial.”
The subtle differences in fragrance and complexity Grahm talks about are beyond my palate grade, but what I do understand is that winemakers are adapting because they have to. For them, climate change is not some abstract, distant worry. It’s creeping into their vineyards right now.
And that’s a big deal. The United States is the world’s fourth-largest wine producer behind Italy, France and Spain, and California produces 80% of the nation’s vino. Retail sales top $40 billion, and the industry employs more than 30,000 Californians directly in growing grapes and producing wine and many more in related jobs. Here, as in other wine-growing regions of the world affected by climate change, there won’t necessarily be less production in coming years. But growers are switching varieties, tinkering with techniques and moving to higher elevations.
After a lot of time on the phone with vintners and climate experts, I took to the highway during the second week of August to see what was happening in the vineyards. I beat the fires and thousands of lightning strikes by a week, but even without an inferno bearing down, what I found was alarming, though I also saw encouraging innovations.
Having grown up in the Bay Area, not far from wine country, I recall hot and breezy summer days as the reliable norm, but definitely not with the kind of lightning storms Northern California is now seeing. On summer excursions to San Francisco from Contra Costa County when I was a kid, we brought jackets because the city was always cool in the summer. On June 10 this year, the thermometer at the San Francisco airport hit 100, the highest temperature on record in the months of June, July and August.
It had been a while since I traveled the Napa Valley wine trail, and I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. Miles of roller-coaster slopes are crocheted with the vines of California’s king of grapes — cabernet sauvignon, often just referred to as cabernet or cab. And it turns out, that’s one of the grapes that may be most imperiled. It doesn’t stand up to extreme heat as well as many lesser-known varieties.
To understand the significance of this, you have to go back to 1976, when a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon put California indisputably on the international wine map once and for all. The underdog California Cabernets were pitted against the best French Bordeaux in a blind tasting that came to be known as the Judgment of Paris, and a California wine from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
To this day, Napa‘s Cabernet is in demand worldwide. In the United States, it is the top-selling red wine, and the best bottles command stratospheric prices. To suggest that different, cheaper and perhaps less marketable grapes might be the future of Napa Valley is almost an act of heresy. For decades, tourists have flocked to the valley’s tasting rooms to buy bottles that sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
But how long can that go on?
Nobody knows for sure, but as far back as 2011, a Stanford University study predicted that the amount of Northern California land suitable for growing premium grapes could shrink by half as early as 2040, due to increased heat.
That’s bad news for the cabernet grape. Too much heat can mean the berry develops sugar before it has developed its full character, throwing off balance and coloring.
Winemaker Dan Petroski has been clanging his glass to sound the alarm. Petroski, who worked in the magazine business and first got interested in wine at high-end New York lunches with clients, has likened the sun’s escalating assault on Napa Valley’s trophy grape to the slow boiling of a frog.
“The changes in climate that are predicted both worldwide and in the Napa Valley mean that in 10, 20, or 30 years’ time…Napa will be a different agricultural region,” Petroski wrote recently for a trade publication. “This is what we must prepare for now.”
Petroski loves Cabernet and makes some of the finest in Napa Valley for Larkmead Vineyards, a high-end producer founded in the 1890s. For 10 years, he said, winemakers have been doing things like shading and misting vines, but he sees a day when “there’s no silver bullet that’s going to mitigate climate change.”
And Petroski isn’t just talking and writing about the problem. At Larkmead, he led me to a three-acre research block he has planted with grapes you may never have heard of — grapes he hopes have a better chance of standing up to climate change than cabernet.
Here, surrounded by trellised rows of cabernet vines, he’s got young stalks of aglianico, charbono, tempranillo, shiraz and touriga nacional. Those sturdy reds might not be as familiar tasting as Cabernet, and they don’t have anywhere near the cachet, but they can handle heat.
“We’ll see what works best,” said Petroski, who isn’t entirely wedded to red wine. Under his own label, Massican, he makes Italian-inspired white wine from grapes including greco, pinot bianco, friulano and ribolla gialla, which he says seem to be handling climate change pretty well.
“Maybe cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay and other grape varieties that built Napa and Sonoma . in the last 30 years won’t be suitable in the next 30 years,” Petroski said. “We have to adapt to what’s going on in the world. This is not a wine industry problem. This is an agriculture problem. This is a global problem. This is a humanity problem.”
Not everyone thinks California’s big-money grapes — cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay — will wither, and some of those grapes still prosper in cooler micro-climates throughout California. At least for now. Just west of Buellton, Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars told me fog still pumps through the valley and creates a perfect growing environment for her pinot noir grapes. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat said he’s got the same golden ribbon of marine climate in the valleys near Santa Maria, where his chardonnay grapes grow.
In hotter climates, like Napa Valley, Jon Priest of Etude Wines is using computer models and artificial intelligence to improve growing and irrigation techniques, and vines can be pruned in a way that creates a canopy of shade over grapes.
“The thing we have at our disposal in the U.S. is technology and knowledge, and we’ll find a way to make Cabernet last,” said Kaan Kurtural, cooperative extension specialist in viticulture at UC Davis.
California wine makers are adapting to the increasingly hotter climate using improved farming techniques and by growing grape varieties that require less water.
Or maybe it’s time for California wine drinkers to branch out.
“There are somewhere around 5,000 grapes we can grow and make wine from,” said Greg Jones, a climatologist and director of wine studies at Linfield University in Oregon, and a contributor to the Stanford study that forecast shrinking acreage for certain varieties in California.
If the state had never grown grapes and were to start from scratch today, says UC Davis agricultural water management specialist Daniele Zaccaria, the smartest bet might be to plant the grapes of southern Europe rather than the cab of Bordeaux. In fact, such grapes were planted in California a century ago by European immigrants, but they were all but forgotten after the success of Napa Valley’s trophy grapes.
I asked Zaccaria what wine he thinks he’ll be reaching for in 30 years, when preparing a nice meal and pairing it with a quintessential California wine.
“Probably a Primitivo, a Tempranillo, a Negroamaro, a Nero d’Avola,” he said, naming wines typical of Southern Europe, including Sicily. “Something from areas very similar in climate.”
You won’t find those in many grocery stores today, but they’ve been on the shelves of specialty shops for years. For shoppers interested in branching out, Keith Mabry of K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood says he’d point out that Primitivo is an Italian cousin of Zinfandel. With Tempranillo, he’d ask if the customer is familiar with wines of Spain’s Rioja region, and if not, he might say it’s a medium-bodied dry red similar to Chianti.
For California grapes and other crops, the climate change problem isn’t just about too much heat, it’s about too little water. But some grape varieties can handle harsh conditions, and Zaccaria said that in his native Puglia in southern Italy, vineyards do well in craggy areas with little rainfall and no irrigation. The roots grow strong, he said, digging deeper into the cracked earth, and the vines can thrive for decades.
You don’t have to cross an ocean to see what’s possible. I settled instead for a trip to Paso Robles.
Jason Haas did not plan as a young man to get into the wine business, but his father, Robert, was a major U.S. importer of wine and a friend of French winemakers. That was how Jason ended up working at a French vineyard one summer, at 16. He returned two more times, then studied economics, art and archaeology in college before working in tech.
By then, Robert Haas had purchased some land in Paso Robles and planted the southern Rhone Valley grapes he had come to love, including grenache, mourvedre, syrah, roussanne and grenache blanc. In 2002, the elder Haas needed someone with a tech background to help out at his Tablas Creek Vineyard, and his son joined the family business.
Jason took me to the top of a hill at Tablas where Grenache and Syrah were planted about 15 years ago. They were spaced farther apart than is common, so roots have less competition for water. Haas keeps a herd of 200 sheep as farmhands. They weed the vineyard, their fertilizer helps the soil hold water, and their hooves cultivate rather than compact the earth.
One-third of the vines at the 120-acre winery are dry-farmed. The rest have irrigation but the water isn’t needed when rainfall is close to normal, Haas said. He is now a proprietor of the winery his late father established, and the award-winning wines include the classic Paso blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. Two weeks ago, temperatures topped 100 several days in a row, Haas said. But his Rhone grapes handled the heat, no problem.
I have nothing against Cabernet Sauvignon. With a steak, or on a cold October night when the Dodgers are losing, that’s the grog I might reach for because it’s a soothing salve, your tongue becomes a flap of peppered jerky in an oak barrel, and you feel like you might grow hair on your head again.
But if the wines of California’s future are from Southern Europe, I’m OK with that. They can be lighter and go better with the chicken, fish and produce that are the essence of California cuisine. My favorite thing about them? They don’t cost nearly as much as the more famous stuff.
With that in mind, I paid a visit to the man who first got me thinking about the relationship between wine and climate change. I found Randall Grahm on his vineyard in San Juan Bautista, which he said he first saw in a dream, before he knew it existed. Here, on 280 acres of terrain he calls Popelouchum — paradise in the Native American language of the Mutsun people — he is trying to create a new variety of grape that will, among other things, stand up to climate change.
Grahm, 67, grew up in Los Angeles and after college got a job “sweeping the floors” at Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills, where he managed to sample enough of the product to know what he wanted to do with himself. That took him to UC Davis for a plant science degree in 1979, after which he borrowed enough money to buy some land in the Santa Cruz mountains town of Bonny Doon, and set out to make a great Pinot Noir, a wine whose light, earthy complexity he considered worthy of worship.
That didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, so Grahm switched his focus to Rhone varietals, and the results catapulted him to wine industry stardom. In 1989, Grahm landed on the cover of Wine Spectator, which crowned him the Rhone Ranger.
You’ve probably had one or more of his wines. Maybe the Big House Red or the Cardinal Zin, both of which were easy on the tongue and the wallet. Another big hit was the somewhat more expensive Le Cigare Volant, or Flying Cigar. To Grahm, soft red blends are more interesting than the big Cabs of Napa Valley.
But commercial success has never defined nor particularly motivated Grahm, who last year sold Bonny Doon but is still the face of it. He is the piano player who must play like no one else has, the artist who’s never entirely satisfied with a painting. His current obsession is to create a wine that is not an impersonation of any other, but is instead a California original. A wine that is the essence of the place and the climate where it’s grown — a vin de terroir.
“Ultimately what’s very important to me is trying to make something that’s truly distinctive, because there’s so much wine in the world, and the world doesn’t need a carbon copy of something that already exists,” said Grahm.
A cool breeze flowed in from the west, across the berry farms east of Watsonville, as I toured paradise with Grahm. The fog doesn’t make many appearances here, he said, but the grapes he’s seeding won’t require a daily cover of maritime mist.
Here the Rhone Ranger is a lone ranger, growing genetically diverse European vines, some of them obscure, with the goal of breeding thousands of new grape varieties. Ultimately, the married vines might produce a grape the world can’t yet imagine but will one day recognize as a true California original, like the giant Sequoia. This could take years, and might or might not work, but in the Grahm gestalt, this project is about more than wine.
Grahm says he aspires to touch the land as lightly as possible, create disease-resistant plants without pesticides or chemicals, dry farm as much as possible, and create grapes that reflect the elements rather than fight to survive them. In other words, he’s after a grape and a wine built to withstand climate change.
The new grape is a ways off, but at a picnic table overlooking paradise, Grahm brought out some of the first wines he’s grown here — a white blend, a Pinot Noir he said he literally made in a galvanized garbage can, and a silky smooth Grenache that was so good I had to raise a glass.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
In The Times’ archives, Easter often meant coverage of sunrise services throughout the area.
Tens of thousands of people would turn out for services at the Hollywood Bowl. But other locations drew crowds too, like the Santa Monica Pier, Mt. Rubidoux and Vasquez Rocks County Park. Attendees would sit among the rocks or stand when all seats had been filled. The services sometimes included large orchestras, choirs and elaborate costumes.
Times staffers photographed dozens of services throughout the years. You can see more here.
Dune evening primrose
These flowers usually are seen in the foreground of those dreamy desert photos, likely because their large white petals contrast nicely with the surrounding muted tones. As they age, the petals take on a pinkish hue. The trick is to catch the flowers when they’re open: They bloom in the evening (as the name suggests) and last through mid-morning.
These plants aren’t the suburban scourge that messes up your lawn. In the desert, dandelions, which have a small red dot in the center, are less showy and more delicate. They bring waves of yellow to desert washes and canyons in a good year. Expect to find patches alongside trails even in a mediocre season.
These lilies are a desert surprise. Until they bloom, all you see are crinkled gray-green leaves hugging the desert floor. In bloom, several trumpet-shaped flowers burst from a single stalk. Good place to look: the Desert Lily Sanctuary in the Mojave Desert along California 177.
Verbena has bright pink-purplish flowers clustered at the end of long stems that seem to creep along the ground. They’re easy to spot on sandy flats at low elevation, usually next to dune evening primroses.
Cactus flowers come in various colors. See how many you can find: yellowish-green flowers on barrel cactus deep pink on hedgehog and beavertail and off-white flowers with yellow centers on fishhook cactus. The large, waxy flowers are irresistible, so keep your camera close. Best place to see them: the Cactus Loop Trail, less than a mile long, at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
These yuccas grow only in the Mojave Desert and are best known for their strange spiky-limbed appearance — as well as a namesake national park and early U2 album. Although their branches appear inhospitable, Joshua trees sprout with glorious creamy white cones. You’ll find them at the park and on easy trails in Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park near Lancaster.
Meet the California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined
R afaela Tijerina first met la señora at a school in the town of Lost Hills, deep in the farm country of California’s Central Valley. They were both there for a school board meeting, and the superintendent had failed to show up. Tijerina, a 74-year-old former cotton picker and veteran school board member, apologized for the superintendent&mdashhe must have had another important meeting&mdashand for the fact that her own voice was faint she had cancer. “Oh no, you talk great,” the woman replied with a warm smile, before she began handing out copies of her book, Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business. “To my friend with the sweet voice,” she wrote inside Tijerina’s copy.
It was only later that Tijerina realized the woman owned the almond groves where Tijerina’s husband worked as a pruner. Lynda Resnick and her husband, Stewart, also own a few other things: Teleflora, the nation’s largest flower delivery service Fiji Water, the best-selling brand of premium bottled water Pom Wonderful, the iconic pomegranate juice brand Halos, the insanely popular brand of mandarin oranges formerly known as Cuties and Wonderful Pistachios, with its “Get Crackin'” ad campaign. The Resnicks are the world’s biggest producers of pistachios and almonds, and they also hold vast groves of lemons, grapefruit, and navel oranges. All told, they claim to own America’s second-largest produce company, worth an estimated $4.2 billion.
The Resnicks have amassed this empire by following a simple agricultural precept: Crops need water. Having shrewdly maneuvered the backroom politics of California’s byzantine water rules, they are now thought to consume more of the state’s water than any other family, farm, or company. They control more of it in some years than what’s used by the residents of Los Angeles and the entire San Francisco Bay Area combined.
Such an incredible stockpiling of the state’s most precious natural resource might have attracted more criticism were it not for the Resnicks’ progressive bona fides. Last year, the couple’s political and charitable donations topped $48 million. They’ve spent $15 million on the 2,500 residents of Lost Hills&mdashroughly 600 of whom work for the couple&mdashfunding everything from sidewalks, parks, and playing fields to affordable housing, a preschool, and a health clinic.
Last year, the Resnicks rebranded all their holdings as the Wonderful Company to highlight their focus on healthy products and philanthropy. “Our company has always believed that success means doing well by doing good,” Stewart Resnick said in a press release announcing the name change. “That is why we place such importance on our extensive community outreach programs, education and health initiatives and sustainability efforts. We are deeply committed to doing our part to build a better world and inspiring others to do the same.”
But skeptics note that the Resnicks’ donations to Lost Hills began a few months after Earth Island Journal documented the yawning wealth gap between the couple and their company town, a dusty assemblage of trailer homes, dirt roads, and crumbling infrastructure. They claim the Resnicks’ influence among politicians and liberal celebrities is quietly warping California’s water policies away from the interests of the state’s residents, wildlife, and even most farmers. “I think the Wonderful Company and the Resnicks are truly the top 1 percent wrapped in a green veneer, in a veneer of social justice,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta, an advocacy group that represents farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, east of San Francisco. “If they truly cared about a sustainable California and farmworkers within their own community, then how things are structured and how they are done by the Wonderful Company would be much different.”
Lynda Resnick’s friends, on the other hand, say she has found her calling. “The work is extraordinary, and rooted in a genuine desire to make a difference in people’s lives,” says media mogul Arianna Huffington. She brushes off any notion that Resnick is in the business of charity for the sake of publicity. “She even turned me down when I asked her to write about it for HuffPost!” she told me. “She does this work because at this point in her life, it’s what she wants to do more than anything.”
In a state of land grabs and Hollywood mythmaking, the Resnicks are well cast as the perfect protagonists. But is their philanthropy just a marketing ploy, or a sincere effort to reform California’s lowest-wage industry? “If you call yourself the Wonderful Company,” Lynda Resnick told me, “you’d better damn well be wonderful, right?”
S unset House, the Resnicks’ 25,000-square-foot Beaux Arts mansion, is imposing even by Beverly Hills standards. Its cavernous reception hall is bedecked with blown-glass chandeliers, its windows draped with Fortuny curtains, and its drawing room adorned with a life-size statue of Napoleon so heavy that the basement ceiling had to be reinforced to bear its weight. The Resnicks purchased and tore down three adjacent houses to make room for a 22-space parking lot and half an acre of lawn. The estate employs at least seven full-time attendants. “Being invited to a dinner party by Lynda Resnick is like being nominated for an Oscar, only more impressive,” local publicist Michael Levine told the Los Angeles Business Journal. Visitors have included Hollywood A-listers like David Geffen, Steve Martin, and Warren Beatty&mdashor writers like Thomas Friedman, Jared Diamond, and Joan Didion. “I am an intellectual groupie,” Lynda told me. “They are my rock stars.”
A petite 72-year-old, Lynda has a coiffure of upswept ringlets and a coy smile. In conversation, she reminded me of my own charming and crafty Jewish grandmother, a woman adept at calling bluffs at the poker table while bluffing you back. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s, Lynda performed on a TV variety show sponsored by an automat. Her father, Jack Harris, produced the cult hit The Blob and later moved the family to California. Though wealthy enough to afford two Rolls-Royces and a 90210 zip code, he refused to pay for Lynda to attend art school, so she found work in a dress shop, where she tried her hand at creating ads for the store. By the time she was 24, she’d launched her own advertising agency, Lynda Limited, given birth to three children, and gotten divorced. She was struggling to keep things afloat.
Around that time, Lynda started dating Anthony Russo, who worked at a think tank with military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. The Edward Snowden of his day, Ellsberg was later prosecuted for leaking Pentagon documents about the Vietnam War to the press. The trial revealed that he and Russo had spent two weeks in all-night sessions photocopying the Pentagon Papers in Lynda’s office on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. She even helped, scissoring the “Top Secret” stamps off documents to “declassify” them. “I did one naughty thing,” she told me. “But if I had to do it again, I would.”
A few years later, Lynda met Stewart Resnick. Born in Highland Park, New Jersey, the son of a Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian bartender, Stewart paid his way through UCLA by working as a janitor and went on to found White Glove Building Maintenance, which quickly grew to 1,000 employees and made him his first million before he graduated from law school in 1962. When he needed some advertising work, a friend recommended Lynda’s agency. “I never got the account,” she writes in her memoir, “but I sure got the business.” They were married in 1973.
Stewart capitalized on his wife’s marketing prowess. Their first big purchase as a couple, in 1979, was Teleflora, a flower delivery company that Lynda revitalized by pioneering the “flowers in a gift” concept&mdashblooms wilt, but the cut-glass vase and teddy bear live on. In 1985, they acquired the Franklin Mint, which at the time mainly sold commemorative coins and medallions. Lynda expanded into jewelry, dolls, and precision model cars. She was ridiculed for spending $211,000 to buy Jacqueline Kennedy’s fake pearl necklace at auction, but she then sold more than 130,000 replicas for a gross of $26 million.
The Resnicks expanded into agriculture in 1978, mostly as a hedge against inflation. They purchased 2,500 acres of orange trees in California’s Kern County citrus belt. Ten years later, during the state’s last great drought, they snatched up tens of thousands of acres of almond, pistachio, and citrus groves for bargain prices. By 1996, their agricultural company, Paramount Farms, had become the world’s largest producer and packager of pistachios and almonds, with sales of about $1.5 billion it now owns 130,000 acres of farmland and grosses $4.8 billion.
Along the way, Paramount acquired 100 acres of pomegranate orchards. After the Resnicks’ family physician mentioned the fruit’s key role in Mediterranean folk medicine, Lynda commissioned scientific studies and found that pomegranate juice had more antioxidant properties than red wine. By 2001 she had created Pom and soon was selling juice in little hourglass bottles under the label P&heartsM, a hint at its supposed cardiac benefits. Less subtle was the national marketing campaign, which showed a Pom bottle with a broken noose around its neck, under the slogan “Cheat death.”
Pom was an overnight sensation, doing millions of dollars in sales by the end of the following year&mdashand cementing Resnick’s status as a marketing genius. “Lynda Resnick is to branding what Warren Buffett is to investing,” Gloria Steinem wrote in 2009, in one of dozens of celebrity blurbs for Rubies in the Orchard.
Sometimes, though, Resnick’s Pom claims went too far. Last year, an appeals judge sided with a Federal Trade Commission ruling saying the company’s ads had overhyped Pom’s ability to prevent heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. “I think it was unfair,” Resnick told me. “And I think it’s a tragedy if the fresh fruits and vegetables that are really the medicine chest of the 21st century have to adhere to the same rules as a drug that could possibly harm you.”
It wasn’t the first time Resnick had pitched her products as health panaceas. As previously reported in Mother Jones, she marketed Fiji’s “living water” as a healthier alternative to tap water, which the company claimed could contain ,000 contaminants.” She has pushed the cardiovascular benefits of almonds, touted mandarin oranges as a healthy snack option for kids, and called nutrient-dense pistachios “the skinny nut.” Her $15 million “Get Crackin'” campaign, the largest media buy in the history of snack nuts, included a Super Bowl ad starring Stephen Colbert. Pistachio sales more than doubled in just three months and steadily increased over the following year to reach $114 million&mdashproving that, sometimes, money really does grow on trees.
With all this newfound wealth, the Resnicks have ratcheted up their philanthropic profile. At first, it was classic civic gifts: $15 million to found UCLA’s Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital $35 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for an exhibition space designed by Renzo Piano and dubbed the Resnick Pavilion $20 million for the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech, which focuses on making “the breakthroughs that will change the balance of the world’s sustainability.” (Wonderful claims to have developed an almond tree that has 30 percent higher yields than a conventional tree, using the same amount of water.)
But in 2010 the Resnicks had an encounter at a dinner party that Lynda says fundamentally changed her approach to philanthropy. Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the ethicist known for his provocative questions, asked the assembled guests if they would be happy living in a town that was perfect in every possible way except for one terrible secret: “Everyone in the town knew that somewhere in that village, in a dank basement, there was a small six-year-old child who was being tortured,” he said, as Resnick later recalled. “And you couldn’t say anything about the torture because if you did you had to leave the town.”
When dinner was over and they got back in the car, Lynda said, “Well, I could never allow even one child to be tortured.” Stewart turned to her and said, “But the child is being tortured, Lynda. What are you doing about it?”
“And it changed my life that very day,” she said.
When she retold the story onstage at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival, Resnick stopped short of spelling out exactly what she thought her husband was alluding to. Her interviewer, former CNN chairman and author Walter Isaacson, didn’t press her on the matter. Nor would she elaborate when I asked her about it. By then she had certainly seen the negative stories, such as the one in the Los Angeles Times that described Lost Hills’ jarring “Third World conditions.”
Isaacson gently picked up his questioning where Resnick had left off: “And that got you involved in the Central Valley of California,” he said. “Why did you choose that?”
“Look, there’s poverty and sadness all over the planet,” Resnick replied, “but I felt that if I was really going to do work, I should start to do work in the place where our employees worked and live. That would be the most meaningful.”
I think they ought to start looking at the farmers,” a woman in yoga pants snapped. She had just been confronted while watering her lawn in Santa Monica by one of the amateur videographers behind last summer’s hottest new California film genre: the drought-­shaming video. The YouTube clip shows her being taunted repeatedly before turning to douse the camera-wielding scold with her hose.
The woman’s anger at being called out and her eagerness to redirect blame reflect common sentiments in an increasingly dry state. The Resnicks, who’ve been anticipating the drought for decades, seem shocked that it has taken everyone else so long to wake up.
“Nobody cared. No one cared about water,” Lynda Resnick told me. “These last four years with this drought, nobody was looking until it affected them. And now that people have to cut back on their water, all of a sudden it has become important.”
It’s true that the Golden State’s vast network of dams, reservoirs, and canals has served the state so well over the past 80 years that Californians have come to take it for granted. Assumed or forgotten is that some 8.7 trillion gallons of water will flow each day into the massive Sacramento-­San Joaquin River Delta, and that 20 percent of it will get sucked by huge pumps into two giant, concrete-lined canal systems and sent hundreds of miles to Southern California’s cities and farms. Delta water has transformed the arid Southland into the state’s population center and the nation’s produce aisle. But it has done so at the cost of pushing the West Coast’s largest estuary to the brink of collapse last year the drought finally prompted regulators to eliminate most Central Valley water deliveries.
Something would have to change, and fast. The Central Valley is in some respects the ideal place to grow fruit and nut trees, with its Mediterranean combination of cool winters and hot summers perfectly promoting flowering, fruit setting, and ripening. But there’s a reason why few trees of any sort grow naturally in the Valley: It averages only 5 to 16 inches of annual rainfall, or what farmers call “God water”&mdashjust 20 percent of what’s required for a productive almond or pistachio harvest. One season without water piped in from the Delta can kill an orchard that took five years to mature. Few farmers are more at risk from the cutbacks than the Resnicks, whose 140 square miles of orchards use about 117 billion gallons of water a year, despite employing cutting-edge conservation technologies.
So like other farmers, the Resnicks have turned to the state’s dwindling reserve of groundwater, sinking wells hundreds of feet deep on their land. Farmers are the main reason that California now pumps nearly seven cubic kilometers of groundwater a year, or about as much total water as what’s used by all the homes in Texas. Sucking water from deep underground has caused the surrounding land to settle as the pockets of air between layers of soil collapse, wreaking havoc with bridges and even gravity-fed canals. Though California passed its first-ever groundwater regulations in 2014, water districts won’t be required to limit pumping for at least another four years.
Historically, farmers pumped just enough groundwater to survive, but in the middle of California’s now five-year drought, nut growers have also used it to expand. Over the last decade, California’s almond acreage has increased by 47 percent and its pistachio acreage has doubled, fueled in the latter case by the Resnicks’ advertising genius. Pistachios are now among the top 10 best-selling salty snack items in the United States, and the Resnicks’ Lost Hills pistachio factory is the world’s largest. To meet robust demand from Europe and Asia, Stewart Resnick last year announced that he wanted to expand nut acreage another 40 percent by 2020. With pistachios netting an astounding $3,519 per acre&mdash4 times more than tomatoes and 18 times more than cotton&mdashhe seemed confident the water would flow uphill to the money.
If you’ve watched Chinatown or read Cadillac Desert, you know something about California’s complicated and often corrupt 100-year-old fight over water rights. The state’s laws were designed to settle the frontier, and under the “first in time, first in right” rule, the most “senior” water claims are the last to be restricted in times of drought. This means some farmers are still able to flood their fields to grow cattle feed, even as residents of towns such as Okieville and East Porterville have to truck in water and shower using buckets.
But the Resnicks’ water rights, by and large, are not senior. To expand their agricultural empire, they had to find another way to tap into the flow from north to south. And to understand how they were able to do that, you have to start with a two-inch-long minnow that smells like cucumbers.
Once an abundant food source for Northern California’s dwindling salmon population, the Delta smelt has been nearly eradicated by those enormous pumps capturing the flow of water from the Sierras. In 1993, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the smelt as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, setting the stage for pumping limits. Worried about getting short shrift on water deliveries, the Resnicks and other farmers in five local water districts threatened legal action. So in 1995, state officials agreed to a deal or, as it has been suggested, a staggering giveaway. The farmers had to relinquish 14 billion gallons of “paper water”&mdashjunior water rights that exist only de jure, since there simply isn’t enough rainfall most years to fulfill them. In exchange, they got ownership of the Kern Water Bank, a naturally occurring underground reservoir that lies beneath 32 square miles of Kern County, which sits toward the southern end of the Central Valley. The bank held up to 488 billion gallons of water, and because it sat beneath a floodplain it could be easily recharged in wet years with rainfall and surplus water piped in from the Delta. The Resnicks, who’d given up the most paper water rights, came to hold a majority vote on the bank’s board and the majority of its water.
Over the next 15 years, a series of wet winters left the bank flush with water: Court documents obtained by the Associated Press showed that in 2007 the Resnicks’ share of the bank amounted to 246 billion gallons, enough to supply all the residents of San Francisco for 16 years. The Resnicks invested in their asset, building canals to connect the bank to the state and federal water systems, thousands of acres of recharge ponds capable of sucking imported water underground, and scores of wells. According to the Wonderful vice president who chairs the Kern Water Bank Authority, the water bank “enabled us to plant permanent crops” such as fruit and nut trees.
But a legal cloud has long shadowed the Resnicks’ water deal. The Kern County Water Bank was originally acquired in 1988 by the state to serve as an emergency water supply for the Los Angeles area&mdashat a cost to taxpayers of $148 million in today’s dollars. In 2014, a judge ruled that the Department of Water Resources had turned the water bank over to the farmers without properly analyzing environmental impacts. A new environmental review is due next month, and a coalition of environmental groups and water agencies is suing to return the water bank to public ownership. Adam Keats, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety, describes the transfer of the water bank to the Resnicks and other farmers as “an unconstitutional rip-off.”
And here’s a key fact to consider against this backdrop: The Resnicks aren’t just pumping to irrigate their fruit and nut trees&mdashthey’re also in the business of farming water itself. Their land came with decades-old contracts with the state and federal government that allow them to purchase water piped south by state canals. The Kern Water Bank gave them the ability to store this water and sell it back to the state at a premium in times of drought. According to an investigation by the Contra Costa Times, between 2000 and 2007 the Resnicks bought water for potentially as little as $28 per acre-foot (the amount needed to cover one acre in one foot of water) and then sold it for as much as $196 per acre-foot to the state, which used it to supply other farmers whose Delta supply had been previously curtailed. The couple pocketed more than $30 million in the process. If winter storms replenish the Kern Water Bank this year, they could again find themselves with a bumper crop of H2O.
Meanwhile, the fight between farmers and smelt has plodded on, with the Resnicks becoming prominent advocates for pumping even more water south to farms. In 2007, a group called the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta began using lawsuits of its own to assign blame for the estuary’s decline to just about everything except farming: housing development in Delta floodplains, pesticide use by Delta farms, dredging, power plants, sport fishing, and pollution from mothballed ships. The coalition’s website doesn’t mention the Resnicks, but it originally listed a Paramount Farms fax number, and three of the four officers on its early tax documents were Resnick employees.
Two years later, with a federal judge now restricting Delta pumping for the sake of the smelt, the Resnicks began raising their concerns with friends in Washington. At the top of that list was California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein. (The Resnicks threw a cocktail party for Feinstein when the Democratic Convention came to Los Angeles in 2000 Feinstein and Arianna Huffington once spent New Year’s with the Resnicks at their home in Aspen, Colorado.) Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s powerful energy and water panel, typically serves as the key negotiator on California-related water bills.
Responding to prodding from Stewart Resnick, Feinstein sent a letter to the secretaries of the interior and commerce urging their agencies to reexamine the science behind the Delta environmental protection plan. The agencies spent some $750,000 studying the issue anew&mdashonly to have researchers again conclude the 2007 restrictions on Delta pumping were warranted.
Lynda Resnick rejects the idea that the couple wields any political power on matters of water policy. “We have no influence politically&mdashI swear to you,” she told me. “Nobody has political influence in this. Nor would we use it.”
Yet that’s hard to square against the Resnicks’ approach to state politics. They’ve given six-figure sums to every California governor since Republican Pete Wilson. They donated $734,000 to Gray Davis, including $91,000 to oppose his recall. Then they gave $221,000 to his replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has called them “some of my dearest, dearest friends.” The $150,000 they’ve sprinkled on Jerry Brown since 2010 might not seem like a lot by comparison, but no other individual donor has given more. The Resnicks also have chipped in another $250,000 to support Brown’s pet ballot measure to fund education.
Now, in a throwback to the sort of massive public-works projects built during his father’s governorship, Brown envisions a bold, silver-bullet solution to the state’s water crisis. He recently unveiled a $15 billion plan to construct two 40-foot-wide tunnels that could carry 67,000 gallons of water per second from the Sacramento River to the Central Valley. The tunnels would completely bypass the ecologically sensitive Delta, eliminating much of the smelt-endangering pumping&mdashand, by extension, many of the restrictions on Delta water diversions that have crimped the Resnicks’ supply.
A win for fish and a win for farmers? Not so fast. Environmentalists fear that removing so much freshwater from the Delta will make it too salty. “You could effectively divert just about every single drop of water before it gets to the estuary in dry years,” says Doug Obegi, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program. There are laws on the books to prevent that from happening, but Central Valley farmers are working diligently to overturn those laws. In June 2015, Rep. David Valadao, a Republican from the Valley, introduced a bill that would force federal regulators to release more Delta water for agriculture. (The Resnicks have given more than $18,000 to Valadao’s campaigns since 2011.) “They really are trying to sacrifice one region for another,” says Restore the Delta’s Barrigan-Parrilla, who will testify against the plan this fall in hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board. “If these plans come to pass, [the tunnels] are a complete existential threat to our communities, our people, and to the environment.”
But the Resnicks have never been ones to let details get in the way of a good marketing campaign. In the summer of 2014, their employees quietly began conducting polling and focus groups to figure out the best way to sell Brown’s plan. Months later they launched Californians for Water Security, a coalition of business and labor interests that promotes the tunnels as an earthquake safety measure. “An earthquake strikes a vulnerable place&mdashthe heart of California’s water distribution system,” cautions the group’s television ad. “Despite expert warnings, crumbling water infrastructure has not been fixed…Aque­ducts fail. Millions lose access to drinking water…Our water doesn’t have to be at risk! Support the plan. Fix the system.”
Three weeks after the ad went live, Gov. Brown held a press conference in which he rebranded his plan as the California Water Fix.
I n the heart of the nut boom is Lost Hills, an entirely flat town where more than half the households have at least one adult who works for the Wonderful Company. The population has doubled since 1990, and the influx of so many new families has meant rising costs. It’s not unusual for a field hand to spend 40 percent of his $1,800 monthly wage on a one-bedroom apartment. “You pay the rent and don’t eat, or you eat and don’t pay the rent,” says Gilberto Mesia, a Wonderful farmworker with three school-age children. More than half of the town’s residents are under the age of 23, a quarter live below the poverty line, and only 1 in 4 adults has a high school degree. “Lost Hills is extreme in every possible way,” says Juan-Vicente Palerm, an anthropologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “These are the state’s poorest workers, and they moved to Lost Hills because that was the cheapest place to live.”
On a swelteringly hot day, three Wonderful executives took me on a six-hour tour of nearly everything that the company is doing to improve the lives of the hundreds of employees who reside there. We met at the 14-acre, Resnick-funded Wonderful Park, where they introduced me to Claudia Nolguen, a Wonderful employee and Lost Hills native who coordinates a daily itinerary of free activities for residents. On today’s schedule: a morning fitness class, an after-school computer lab, and a movie night. We walked through the park’s emerald lawn to see its huge water tower, painted with a mural depicting two hills. “You have found Lost Hills,” the slogan said.
Next to the impeccable flower beds at one of the park’s two community centers, food bank workers were unloading enough frozen chicken to feed roughly 400 people. They were expecting a smaller-than-normal crowd. “During the harvest, families aren’t able to take advantage of the distribution,” one of the workers explained. “The usual stay-at-home mom is now working.”
We drove to the Wonderful pistachio factory for lunch. The chef in the employee cafeteria made us adobo-chicken lettuce wraps&mdashpart of a healthy menu intended to combat diabetes and obesity. Baskets on the tables were filled with free fruits and nuts for the taking. The company’s new, far-reaching health initiative also includes free exercise classes in the employee gym, a weekly on-site farmers market, and a program that pays people up to $2,700 a year to lose weight and keep it off. Since the program began in January 2015, the Wonderful workforce has shed 4,000 pounds.
In the plant’s nut-grading room, a few dozen seasonal employees wearing orange reflective vests and hairnets sat around folding tables evaluating samples from incoming truckloads of pistachios. Suddenly, a boom box started blaring merengue, and everyone stood up and danced. It was the daily Zumba break. “It feels good to move around,” one worker told me afterward.
As part of its focus on its workers, the company has built in-house health clinics at its plants in Lost Hills and Delano. The clinics have a full-time, bilingual doctor, health coaches, and prescription medications&mdashall free of charge. “There are all sorts of costs related to poor health,” Stewart Resnick said at the Aspen Institute in July. “My hope is that this really doesn’t become a charity, but rather works, and that we will get a payback”&mdashboth in terms of productivity and reduced health care costs.
A similar return-on-investment logic infuses the company’s educational initiatives. Led by Noemi Donoso, the former chief executive of Chicago’s public school system, Wonderful Education last year spent $9.3 million, including at least $2 million on teacher grants and college scholarships in the Central Valley it pays up to $6,000 a year toward college tuition for children of its employees. It is building a $25 million campus for a college prep academy in Delano and expanding its agriculture-focused vocational program to six public schools. It guarantees graduates of the programs jobs at Wonderful that pay between $35,000 and $50,000 a year. Among the goals is to provide a pipeline of workers to staff its increasingly mechanized operations. “Half the jobs are highly skilled jobs,” said Andy Anzaldo, the general manager of grower relations. “They’re quality supervisors. They’re engineers. They’re mechanics.”
The Resnicks are quick to point out that it’s not just plant workers who’ve benefited­&mdashthe nut boom has improved the lives of farmworkers, too. Back when cotton was still king in Kern County, migrant workers who’d picked spring oranges and summer grapes in other parts of the Valley would descend on Lost Hills for a few weeks to work alongside cotton combines during the fall harvest. It wasn’t easy to bring kids along, so they usually stayed behind in Mexico or Guatemala. But tree crops are different. After the fall harvest comes winter pruning, spring pest management, and summer watering and mowing. The nut industry’s nearly year-round employment has allowed farmworkers to put down roots. They can live with their families, send their kids to school, and start to grasp for the American Dream. Like Rafaela Tijerina did.
Tijerina, who has short gray hair and a cautious smile, grew up in a village near Monterrey, Mexico, before her family moved to South Texas in 1954. She dropped out of school in the eighth grade to pick cotton and chased the cotton trail to Lost Hills, where in 1969 she found a job planting pistachio trees instead. The steady work allowed her kids to graduate from high school and move into the middle class. By 2000, Tijerina and her husband had scraped together enough money to qualify for a USDA loan that helped them buy 330 acres of wheat fields a few miles outside town.
But Tijerina and her husband can’t afford to drill wells or even tap into the supply from the local irrigation district they farm entirely with God water. They haven’t harvested a crop in four years due to the drought, though in December they will plow their fields and plant another. Unless winter storms deliver enough rain, it will be their last shot before they sell out. “It’s really good land,” Tijerina told me, her shaky voice still tinged with optimism. “But the only thing is, we don’t have water.”
- 1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
- 4 cups sugar
- 1 (12 fluid ounce) can frozen juice concentrate - any flavor except citrus, thawed
- 3 ½ quarts cold water, or as needed
Combine the yeast, sugar and juice concentrate in a gallon jug. Fill the jug the rest of the way with cold water. Rinse out a large balloon, and fit it over the opening of the jug. Secure the balloon with a rubber band.
Place jug in a cool dark place. Within a day you will notice the balloon starting to expand. As the sugar turns to alcohol the gasses released will fill up the balloon. When the balloon is deflated back to size the wine is ready to drink. It takes about 6 weeks total.
Use a frozen juice concentrate without added sweeteners for best results.