In California’s esteemed Napa Valley, a tinge of discord hangs in the air, generated by winds of controversy around the development of a casino. Local winemakers voice unprecedented fury at the thought of a casino disfiguring their fertile vineyards and picturesque landscapes.
The proposed casino development forms part of an ambitious, long-term plan by the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Native Americans, the historical inhabitants of the Napa Valley. The tribe, who lost their federal status under the California Rancheria Termination Act of 1958, is in the midst of a court battle to regain its federal recognition. This recognition would allow the tribe to sidestep local zoning laws and pursue various economic developments, potentially including the construction of a casino without community consent. The state of California is already home to 65 casinos, each operated by one of 64 different tribes.
A study conducted by Beacon Economics of Los Angeles reveals that tribal gaming contributes to 56,000 jobs in California, with casino workers taking home $2.9 billion in wages as of 2012.
While tribal resurgence is not being contested, the placement of a casino amidst the famous vineyards of Napa Valley is protested mainly due to a local ordinance that prioritises preserving the agrarian landscape of the valley and curbing expansive developments that could detract from the region’s unique pastoral charm. Noted particularly for its Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, the valley is among the stellar wine-producing regions globally, housing 789 licensed wineries.
Janet Viader from the renowned Viader Vineyards & Winery asserted the vintners’ stance by stating, “We’re not at odds with their [tribe’s] quest for recognition. But we disapprove of the kind of development that we’ve resisted for 60 years – our emphasis is on maintaining the sanctity of agricultural growth and perpetuating our trade.”
Larry Florin, the county’s director of housing and intergovernmental affairs, further expressed apprehensions about the proposed casino, citing detrimental impacts like traffic congestion and pollution. He stressed the significance of the valley’s pristine ecological balance and how any disturbance could jeopardize the global repute of their wines.
Despite such reservations, Scott Gabaldon, the tribe’s chairman, clarified that decisions concerning the casino would only be made after securing federal recognition. He also criticized the seemingly double standards of the community groups opposing the proposed casino. “For years, these wineries have polluted the rivers with their toxins… and now they complain about pollution?” he contested, also adding that “there are so many ways to achieve economic development. While a casino is the most efficient and lucrative route, and I know numerous casinos generously contribute to the community, it’s ultimately my tribe’s choice to decide.”
The case for recognition lodged in 2009, and while a federal judge heard arguments last summer, the verdict remains pending.