For three decades, the firefighters of the Dry Creek-Lokoya Volunteer Fire Department have relied on the annual Home Winemakers Classic fundraiser to pay for upkeep on their firehouse.
Until this year.
For the first time ever, California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officials said this month that they would not approve a one-day permit for the event, set for today at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, if it involved tastings or auctions of home-produced wines.
Since the homemade wine is the centerpiece of the annual event, the fire company simply canceled it, foregoing the $16,000 it would have added to the bottom line for the small, rural fire company in the western hills of Napa County.
Volunteer Chief Larry Russell said he decided to pull the plug after ABC suggested that the only way to serve the home-made stuff was in a private party or gathering of friends.
"It's no longer even an event other than friends getting together," Russell said. "This is really talking about the Prohibition era."
State alcohol officials deny they are singling out firefighters or making any change to their policy. Spokesman John Carr said the department had not been aware previously of the home-made component.
"When the department was made aware that home-made wine would be for sale, we worked with event organizers and explained that state law does not allow selling homemade wine," he said.
Winemakers who supported the event expressed shock at the cancellation, saying they do not charge for glasses of the wine, but instead just pour donated tastes.
"It's not hurting anyone, it's a good cause, and we've been doing it for 30 years with permits," said Napa City Council member Juliana Inman, a member of the Leap of Faith winemaking club that has been pouring at the Dry Creek fundraiser and similar events for decades. "How could something like this suddenly be ruled illegal?"
State law allows home winemakers to produce up to 100 gallons per year for each adult in a home, up to 200 gallons per household. In 2008, home winemakers were stunned when the state put a halt to home wine competitions, noting that state law did not specifically allow for the transport of homemade wine for any purpose.
Fearing that the ruling could put a halt to the hundreds of competitions, including the State Fair's long-standing judging, the state legislature quickly amended the law to allow transportation and judging of the amateur product.
But the Dry Creek fundraiser goes beyond a competition, Carr said, since it involves tasting and auctioning of amateur bottles. Although event organizers do not charge for a single glass of the wine, it is ABC's position that the fact that the fire department is proposing to charge admission makes it a de facto "sale" of the homemade stuff, which is expressly forbidden by the law.
A similar interpretation killed another long-standing fundraiser in Lake County in June, when ABC told the nonprofit Clearlake Performing Arts that it could not pour home-made wine and beer at its annual fundraiser, the first time in its 11-year run that the event had drawn such notice from the agency.
Organizer Connel Murray said the organization backed down and removed the homemade products from the lineup, even though that drew producers and attendees from all over Northern California.