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A mountain of opposition to proposed renaming of summit

Billionaire vintner Jess Jackson had pushed to change Black Mountain — one of 49 in California — to Alexander Mountain. Sonoma County locals fume: 'The historical names of our … landmarks' are not for sale.

May 05, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • A Kendall-Jackson vineyard worker drives along Geysers Road, with Black Mountain in the background. Representatives of the estate's late owner, Jess Jackson, say he only wanted to rename the mountain in honor of the pioneer who discovered the Alexander Valley.
A Kendall-Jackson vineyard worker drives along Geysers Road, with Black… (Kent Porter / Santa Rosa…)

Reporting from Healdsburg, Calif. -- Billionaire vintner Jess Jackson's move to change the century-old name of Black Mountain to Alexander Mountain was the last straw for Gary Wilson, whose family has owned a significant chunk of the peak in redwood country north of San Francisco for generations.

Jackson, developer of the Kendall-Jackson brand, was growing grapes on 5,400 acres on the mountain's east slope, which his company bought from Chevron in 1995. He labeled that vineyard Alexander Mountain Estate. It was traversed by a private lane he named Alexander Mountain Road.

When Jackson filed papers with the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names in 2009, asking to rename the whole mountain, Wilson began investigating.

Unfurling a map on a desk in his downtown Healdsburg office, Wilson jabbed his finger at a swirl of topographic lines. "That is Black Mountain," he said, "and the historical names of our geographical landmarks are not available for commercial purposes."

In a rural agricultural community where distrust of big change and gaudy promotions has always run deep, Wilson's outrage provoked a campaign to derail the proposal. Wilson has pointed out historical references to "Black Mountain," discrepancies in Jackson's application to the geographic names committee, and a petition signed by 350 local residents opposing the change.

In his application, Jackson argued that the peak should be renamed to commemorate Cyrus Alexander, a pioneer for whom the region's Alexander Valley was named, and to eliminate confusion with the 48 other summits in California named Black Mountain, including three in Sonoma County. There are 266 Black Mountains nationwide, he noted.

He also suggested that although there are historical references to "Black Mountain" in Sonoma County, it is unclear whether they refer to this summit or one of the others. In addition, he said, the summit was commonly known here as Alexander Mountain, and the road that skirts the flanks of the mountain is named Alexander Mountain Road.

The committee will make a recommendation in July to the United States Board on Geographic Names. If approved, the 3,128-foot-high, chaparral-clad ridgeline a few miles northeast of this Sonoma County town of about 11,000 will appear as Alexander Mountain in all future state and federal maps and databases.

The board's determination will hinge on local acceptance of the proposal, and whether changing the name of the mountain could jeopardize safety by confusing emergency responders.

The board will also take a hard look at whether the proposal is associated with a commercial enterprise, according to Jenny Runyon, the board's senior researcher.

"We have denied proposed geographical name changes in the past because they were perceived to have been submitted for commercial purposes," Runyon said. "We can't be changing geographical names every time one company shuts down and another takes over its assets. That would be a safety nightmare."

The last time the board was asked to rename a mountain, it said no. Commissioners unanimously rejected a proposal to change the name of the Bay Area's Mt. Diablo, which critics called blasphemous, to Mt. Reagan.

Pete Downs, senior vice president of external affairs for Jackson Family Wines, said Jackson, who died on April 21, only wanted to commemorate Cyrus Alexander.

"Despite what some people are saying, this is really not about money or anything commercial," Downs said. "This is about nothing other than honoring Cyrus Alexander."

But according to Wilson, the petition is misleading, at best. The proposal suggests that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors supports the name change. In fact, the board in 2004 passed a resolution that the company's parcel on Black Mountain be known as "Alexander Mountain" — not the entire mountain.

In addition, Wilson said, "History books say it got its name from the dark chaparral that covers its slopes, and from the Black family, which had 2,200 acres up there in the late 1800s."

Harry Bosworth, owner of Bosworth and Sons General Merchandise in nearby Geyserville, also criticized the proposal, saying it smacked of corporate arrogance.

"My main concern is the sly, almost underhanded way the company went about presenting its proposal," Bosworth said. "They should have first talked it over with locals."

"But I'd be surprised if the name of the mountain doesn't get changed," he added. "That is because of all the influence Jess' corporation can bring to bear on the matter in this county."

Over the last two years, the Healdsburg and Windsor councils have opposed the proposal. The Cloverdale City Council and the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians have supported for it. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted last summer to remain neutral.

Downs has high hopes for a favorable determination in July.

"Unfortunately, it didn't come in Jess' lifetime," Downs said. "Maybe it will be part of his legacy."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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