BACK IN THE LATE 1980s, only a gubernatorial veto saved California from the embarrassment of having an official state mollusk: the banana slug. California is nutty enough. Who needed a legally anointed slug? Gov. George Deukmejian, a sober fellow, viewed the measure as frivolous even though it was approved by majority votes in the Assembly and state Senate. Anyway, he mused, the abalone would be more appropriate if the state had to have an official mollusk.
The fate of the banana slug (still the official mascot of UC Santa Cruz athletic teams; they call him Sammy the Slug) has not discouraged lawmakers from wasting time (and embarrassing us all) by declaring one official state thing after another.
Beginning with the official state seal and flag, the list of official things has grown to 33 by my semi-official estimate. In recent years, the Legislature has declared an official state grass and an official state tall ship. Not to mention the official state ghost town, or is it towns? More about that later.
Most people know that the grizzly bear is the state’s official animal, the California quail the official bird and the California poppy the official flower. But few realize that the state also has an official fossil (saber-toothed cat), official dirt (San Joaquin Valley soil), an official insect (dogface butterfly), a prehistoric artifact, a folk dance. And the list goes on -- and on.
The matter is back in the news following state Sen. Carole Migden’s (D-San Francisco) proposal that zinfandel be declared the official state wine. Start legislating about which varietal is the most deserving of state honor and you set off an emotional and political battle.
Migden’s district includes part of the wine country of Sonoma County. She argues that zinfandel “is a grape that’s very old in California, is appealing to all palates and can be served with all varieties of food.”
Not surprisingly, members of the Assn. of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers were delighted. “This is unprecedented recognition of zinfandel’s distinctive history in California,” declared Julie Johnson, a Napa Valley vintner and president of ZAP. She also said association officials were totally surprised by Migden’s proposal, thus presumably quashing any skeptic’s notion that the idea just might have originated with zinfandel growers.
Also not surprisingly, growers of other varietals are not so enthusiastic. Jennifer Kopp, executive director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers Assn., told the San Francisco Chronicle: “For Napa Valley, cabernet is king. But we’re very proud of the Riesling on the hillsides and the pinot [noir] down in Carneros. We wouldn’t be able to isolate just one and just be proud of that.”
In the face of sharp questioning and criticism, Migden issued a news release headlined “Senator Migden Stands by Her Wine.” Migden noted that zinfandel had been grown in California since the Gold Rush. She hinted at “sour grapes” on the part of foes. The bill is still alive.
Wine is not the only official-thing issue stewing in Sacramento. For years, Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz have battled over which is to be honored as Surf City. Huntington Beach even got a trademark for the title “Surf City, USA.” Santa Cruz countered with its own: “Original Surf City, USA.” That battle has a counterpart in a fight between Oceanside and Huntington Beach for the right to be known as the home of the official state surfing museum. State Sen. Bill Morrow (D-Oceanside) agreed to draft a measure favoring -- no surprise -- his hometown. Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) has vowed to fight it.
As with almost any issue in Sacramento, there may be room for compromise. Alas, the battle over official state ghost town offers a bad precedent. At the urging of junior high school students in Mono County, Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) introduced in 2002 a bill naming Bodie, off U.S. 395 north of Mammoth Lakes, the state’s official ghost town.
There’s no doubt that Bodie, a state park now and pretty much just like it was when the gold ran out and everyone left, is an outstanding ghost town. But state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) was offended. He countered with his own bill favoring Calico, the restored San Bernardino County town, which is a county park. So lawmakers named Bodie the official gold mining ghost town and Calico the official silver mining ghost town.
Actually, they’re both wrong. Everyone knows the state’s real official gold rush ghost town ought to be Coloma, where James Marshall started it all in 1848.
Surely the Legislature has better things to do. Then again, maybe we should keep lawmakers busy on the small stuff. How about an omnibus official-thing bill that would wipe out all 33 honorees, except the classics: the seal, the motto, the flag, the poppy, the grizzly and the quail. Then Sacramento could start all over again -- and this time, give the abalone its due.