A proposed winery in Sonoma Valley is stirring an age-old debate over how to preserve the region's rural character, while enabling businesses that support the local economy to thrive.
The proposed W. Cunningham Winery, named after the late education adviser to former Gov. George Deukmejian, comes from Steve Ledson, whose family has farmed in the valley for nearly a century. For Ledson, opening a winery is a way to hold onto the land and continue his family's legacy.
But for neighbors who live nearby, the winery represents yet another source of noise and traffic in a valley they adore. They're concerned that one-lane Frey Road will become bogged down with traffic and their peaceful nights will be disrupted during harvest.
Ledson has proposed building a winery with the capacity to make 50,000 cases of wine per year and a tasting room with the ability to hold 24 events.
The new winery would allow Ledson to move out of a leased production facility in downtown Sonoma, where he makes wine sold in his Gothic castle off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Kenwood.
Ledson recently began converting his existing walnut orchard to vineyards, concerning some neighbors. Walking around the orchard as crews broke down the trees, Ledson spoke about his desire to continue his family's ranching history.
"I worked with my father on his ranches ever since I was born," Ledson said. "We had grapes, walnuts, prunes and dairy cattle. We delivered milk all over this valley."
Their work helped shape the valley into a place that others enjoy, Ledson said. But farming walnuts doesn't make enough money to cover the tax bills on the property, said Ledson, who owns more than 6,000 acres of commercial, agricultural and residential land in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. In his assessment, growing grapes doesn't make a lot of money either, especially when competing with major companies like E&J Gallo and Kendall-Jackson.
"My main goal here is to save my family's ranch," said Ledson, a developer who built Armstrong Estates in east Sonoma and a hotel on the Sonoma Plaza. "And to save it, I can't grow walnuts, and growing grapes won't pay the taxes. The money is in making wine."
If the land isn't profitable enough, Ledson could wind up selling it, and then the six parcels could be turned over to developers who may build homes, he said.
Ledson's proposed W. Cunningham Winery is the latest to face opposition in a valley whose residents are increasingly concerned about changes to the character of the landscape.
Valley of the Moon Alliance, a group with about 1,000 members that formed in 2002 to oppose the development of the proposed Sonoma Country Inn, has raised questions about Cunningham Winery and other nearby winery proposals.
"It's becoming a community concern, because of how many tasting rooms there are, and then that includes all of the tours coming through, and the people that rent the facility for weddings and other kinds of special events," said Kathy Pons, president of the alliance's board.
The development of wineries in the Sonoma Valley has been gradually moving north, said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the district where Ledson's proposed winery would reside. The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, a group of city and county representatives that reviews proposed developments and makes recommendations, has proposed expanding the boundaries of the region it covers because of that northern push, she said. Currently, much of Kenwood lies outside the group's jurisdiction.