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Fans of the Industry

When Anderson Valley resident Wendy Read called a public meeting to rally sleep-deprived opponents of frost fans in the vineyards, she may not have expected that more than half of the 50 attendees would be owners and employees of the wine industry. After swallowing hard, she opened with a presentation of the health concerns associated with noise, vibration, and electric fields that the fans produce. It was a sobering list. She followed that by reading relevant sections of the Mendocino County ordinance that governs public nuisance. This document specifies permitted decibel levels and times of operation of machinery that in black-and-white renders fan use dead. (Why that ordinance is not being enforced in the county is the subject for another day.) Ms. Read stressed interest in finding a solution and threw the room open to discussion.

It was soon clear that the two camps arrived certain their views were the only right and reasonable ones. Unfortunately, the indignation of first two speakers (both vineyard people) added thorns. When a winery owner bluntly asked if people preferred that he lose income so they could sleep, like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus, the sleepless chirped, Yes. Next, that same man’s daughter read a document she had written in a style as if just losing ten games of darts in a row. “It’s kind of snarky,” she said by way of introduction, “But, you’ll see; it’s just to get the ball rolling.” Her arguments lampooned the sins of organic and sustainable farming to show how fan noise between the hours of midnight and 7 AM was comparatively not so bad.

These blunders roused the ire of those for whom the meeting was called. Several people stood and, in strained voices, described in great detail the offense and consequences they suffer at being ripped from sleep, complete with 19th Century theatrics showing how the fans shake their beds, rooms and even houses and what they try to do to hide from the sound. Several offered invitations for the vineyard owners to sleep with them, which, being made in public and with spouses present, seemed a noteworthy proposition.

During each testimonial, clusters of owners and managers tipped their heads together and snickered, whispering — not quietly enough — derisions that would have been better saved for another time. But as the impassioned speeches in opposition gathered momentum of common sense, the vintners lined up to defend the “choice-less situation” in which they find themselves, now that the drought has killed their preferred method of spraying water over the vines to protect the tender buds from freezing in April and May. First they reminded the assembled that the valley depends on the wineries for all manner of employment and that life-as-we-know-it would halt if they lost any crop (money). They had practiced their arguments that fans were the ecological choice over sucking water from the river and fragile water table (which they have done for fifty years and which they will continue to do anytime they can get away with it) and that clearly “you exhausted residents can see the wisdom and beneficence of our strategy. View it as us taking care of you and the Earth.”

They were quick to say, when the rains return, they will revert back to water spraying and we can all get back to sleep. This argument coming so soon into the politically-charged, climate change boondoggle, no one dared acknowledge the strong odor of elephant droppings in the room. Only worshippers in the Church of Fox News believe the water is coming back (after Liberals are crucified en masse), while the rest of us we are resolved that farmers will run fans until the atmosphere is blackened from burned carbon, which is, ironically, the very reason the archaic smudge pots were banned.

By and large, the sleepless were longhaired (gray) and bearded, while the vintners of all generations came dressed more for an upscale barn dance. Some of the latter were young men, well-spoken and proud to be on track for great things involving a drug delivery system the United States has long legalized. (They had the sense to not mention by name the competing drug system of many local residents.) Speaking in reasoned tones they explained that farms have a right to exist, that methods of farming change, that everyone likes wine and that nowhere in the constitution does it say residents have a right to uninterrupted sleep. This stirred even the most tired. Some tottered to their feet and said they moved here for the quiet life and that the fans were ruing everything they had strived for all these years. It was property rights versus property rights.

Some vintners turned Ms. Read’s initial use of the words “compromise solution” to mean that residents should be patient: it’s only twenty days a year when the fans need to run (not 365); technology will find ways to make quieter fans; and farmers are experimenting with the machines’ settings to have them come on a little later, turn a little slower and quit sooner. But they did not volunteer to limit their use or consider losing some of their crop as an acceptable part of coming to some middle ground. It was more like, We keep the crop and the money and you get to keep losing sleep.

Perhaps the weary ones really believed in compromise or perhaps they were too run down to ask for the fans to be banned entirely — as the public nuisance order would indicate. Some spoke sadly in hopes that moderately supporting wine and farming rights would somehow allow them to get some sleep.

One fellow asked for hands of who in the room were owners and employees of the vineyards. After seeing some 30 hands, he asked who among them was losing any sleep from the fans. The luck wine people have is amazing; only one woman, an employee, kept her hand raised. She was quick to add that she also had young kids, so was getting up a lot anyway.

Strangely, no one raised the issue of the effect fans have on property values. When showing a listed property, a real estate agent must disclose to every buyer conditions that might cause the buyer to not have reasonable peace and contentment. The agent’s spiel should go like this: “I must inform you, Mrs. Buyer, that in April and May there will be between 10 and 20 nights when you will be awakened by the sound of stationary attack helicopters overhead and that some neighbors thus afflicted have trouble getting back to sleep.” The buyer will check the agent’s list of other properties and ask to see those next. As any student of Supply and Demand economics will tell you, fewer buyers means lower prices. And fortunately for farmers, that’s not in the constitution either. But the first wealthy buyer who acquires a property without being informed will create a storm in court and with the state’s real estate commission. At that time, farmers will again polish their arguments about why fans of the industry are good and necessary for us all.

But for 2014, the Fan Season is coming to an end, though this writer had the pleasure of hearing them this morning. So perhaps in the coming months things will settle down and residents and farmers alike will look to the hillsides of Anderson Valley, seeing profit trickling into offshore accounts and oak-flavored intoxication into wine goblets on local tables. As has been the trend for the last 50 years, more acreage will be put into grapes this year by newcomers hoping to make much more than a pretty penny creating tax havens for spoils gained elsewhere. More water will be pumped from the water table to supply 270 gallons per day, per acre through the season. But none of those new acres will be placed in frost-free locations and none of the existing frost-prone acres will be ripped out. (That would be a great farmer contribution to compromise.) For a few months anyway, one and all will raise a glass to the bounty of nature and drink away the troubles of the recent past. Few will think to stand on the edge of history and peer over to an earlier time to learn the lesson when another plant so captivated human passion that everyone who had a Dutch Gilder invested in tulip bulbs, knowing wealth and fame would be theirs if they could just milk a little more out the soil before the market collapsed. For now, we demand a supply.

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