John Dyson, New York private equity manager and North Bay wine guy

Meet John Stuart Dyson, one of Sonoma County’s most politically-active oligarchs.  Dyson, a New York-based private equity manager and former US Senate candidate, has donated the comparatively whopping sum of $35,000 to a Super PAC supporting Lynda Hopkins, a candidate for Sonoma County fifth district supervisor, according to records from the Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor.

Dyson is the founder of Millbrook Capital Management, Inc. As with so many other people who derive their fortunes from private equity, hedge funds, credit markets, venture capital, real estate speculation, and all the other games played with billion-dollar pots of money, he is currently a North Bay Area wine guy.  He also owns vineyards in Tuscony and in the southern Santa Clara Valley near Hollister.

Dyson is also a former Deputy Mayor of New York City in the 1990s, appointed to that position by then-mayor and current Donald Trump BFF Rudy Guliani. He had previously been New York Commissioner of Commerce during the creation of the tourism advertising campaign “I [Heart] New York” in the late-’70s.

Dyson’s biggest regional political priority has been to beat back any effort to regulate the almighty grape, including its enormous draw on the battered Russian River.

Let’s go back to 2008.  On several frigid spring mornings, winegrape growers diverted more than 30 percent of the Russian Rivers’ flow in Mendocino County alone, as measured at the Hopland US Geological Service gauge, to protect their grapevines from frost damage.

Russian River water pumps, July 2015. Photo by Ken Sund
Russian River water pumps, July 2015. Photo by Ken Sund

Frost can damage new growth tissue, and growers have increasingly sprayed water, via overhead sprinklers, on the vines to form a protective layer of ice over the new growth.  The cumulative effect on aquatic life can be enormous.  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimated that more than 25,000 steelhead trout died as a result of frost-protection pumping in the upper Russian in spring 2008 alone (the wine industry vehemently disputes this estimate).

Two years later, the California Water Resources Control Board announced it would begin regulating the Russian River growers’ frost protection water use in an effort to stave off the continued slide toward extinction of the river’s salmon and trout.  Many grape growers were livid.  Dyson led the wine juggernaut’s opposition campaign in SoCo.  He hired a private attorney named Jesse Barton to create a mutual benefit corporation called the Russian River Watershed Council, the main purpose of which was to head off Water Board regulations with a grower-approved monitoring scheme, as I reported in the AVA at the time.

Dyson also commissioned Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler (now a full-time private consultant) to write a study claiming that limiting frost-control irrigation would cost the grape industry over $2 billion per year and at least 8,000 jobs.  Dyson issued a pronouncement in conjunction with the study saying that the regulations would “damage the entire nation both financially and socially.”

The North Bay wine industry is extremely politically-active at both the county and state levels with regard to water, zoning, labor, subsidies, and more, and it seems few individuals within the industry are more active than Dyson.  His support for Hopkins in a tight fifth district supervisor race with former State Senator Noreen Evans seems to be a barometer for how the industry at large is viewing this election.

Hopkins and Evans, courtesy of the Sonoma County Gazette
Hopkins and Evans, courtesy of the Sonoma County Gazette

Hopkins, a 33-year old Stanford graduate who, with her husband, owns Healdsburg’s Foggy River Farm, has raised about $440,000 for her campaign, with more than $120,000 coming from winery interests.  She has the backing of the Farm Bureau, real estate interests, and a group of local power-brokers known as the Bosco Boys, who are keen on preserving their current 3-2 majority of industry-oriented supervisors.

(James Gore, who received a record of nearly $700,000 in donations to his 2014 campaign, is one of the North Bay business blocs other favorite SoCo supes.  It appears Hopkins will fall short of his donation record. As I reported in this story, Gore is a former Washington, DC wine industry lobbyist and received about $150,000 in wine industry donations to his campaign.  Gore later wrote a rejoinder to my story and has since prefaced his votes with comments such as “This is from a guy who people say is owned by the wine industry.”)

Dyson opposes Evans partly because of “Evans’ long tenure in politics and her strong support of labor unions,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Angela Hart wrote.

A 20-year old Williams-Selyem employee named Taylor Atkins died in a 1999 workforce accident, which was fully preventable if Dyson had instituted commonsense plant safety rules, the AVA’s Bruce Anderson reported.

According to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office report on the case: “On January 7, 1999, the victim, Taylor J. Atkins, an employee for seven months of the Williams Selyem Winery located at 6575 Westside Road, Healdsburg, was asphyxiated when he climbed into a 1500 gallon wine tank, a confined permit space, that had been devoid of oxygen by placing nitrogen gas into the tank during the bottling process. Williams Selyem Winery failed to provide adequate training to any exposed employees regarding the presence, location, and health hazards associated with any confined spaces or permit-required confined spaces; and the 1500-gallon wine tank which was inerted with nitrogen gas during the bottling process was not posted with danger signs to alert any exposed employee of the existence, location, and danger posed by the permit confined space.”

Christine Atkins, mother of Taylor Atkins, told the AVA’s Anderson at the time, “Mr. Dyson called to say he was sorry, but then he said things like this happen all the time, and he talked about how some workers at a flour mill back east had died. Talk about not getting it! Taylor would not have died if Dyson had invested just a few dollars in safety equipment at his winery.”

John Dyson [Heart] Big Campaign Donations