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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.

Community concern

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.

Although Gorin has been talking with people in her district who are concerned about Ledson's winery, she has not yet taken a position on the project, she said.

"Sonoma County is known for its phenomenally successful wine industry," Gorin said. "It is a huge part of our success, agritourism. And I think each project should be judged on its merits, so I don't think there should be a firm limit."

She said residents are uneasy about the number of events that are proposed and permitted.

"So if there's anything we're going to be evaluating in the future, or thinking about in the future, it is, 'What is an event? What is appropriate for the situation? And should we be talking about an overconcentration in certain areas?'" Gorin said.

Events in spotlight

The county's Permit and Resource Management Department has been working with the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau to update its online events calendar so that users will be able to view events by region on a map. That also will help planners determine whether events are clustered around certain areas and contributing to traffic problems.

"What we are now working on is trying to expand the information that's collected on the calendar, so that reports can be done showing the density of events and location," said Wendy Peterson, executive director of the visitors bureau. "Hopefully, it will be a way that event planners and eventgoers can look at how to spread them out, how to see what's happening where and when."

Special events are essential for the wine industry and tourism, Peterson said.

"Events like weddings are also wonderful, because people love destination weddings," Peterson said. "What it does is it brings people who have never selected Sonoma as a destination, and they come and fall in love with Sonoma and come back again."

Input from neighbors

In Ledson's case, the winery is proposed on Highway 12 and Frey Road, a one-lane street where residents often must wait several minutes before they can make a left turn onto the highway. Residents fear they will be trapped behind dozens of cars trying to leave an event on the small road.

Ledson plans to petition Caltrans to create an entrance off Highway 12, but he has not yet filed a formal request, he said.

As Ledson surveyed the property one recent morning, a small group of neighbors walking by stopped to ask about his work on the property.

"It looks like you're already getting started," said Pam McVey, whose property abuts the proposed vineyard.

"You have to understand, none of us wants this," said Linda Salomon, also a neighbor.

Ledson and the neighbors talked patiently with each other for about 10 minutes, discussing their concerns about the impact of Ledson's new well, the number of events he plans to host, and noise from winemaking that would disrupt the quiet nights they sought when they moved to the valley.

"There are so many good things that have come out of our meetings," Ledson said. "I'm trying to shrink it down and keep it sensible, and you guys have been a big part of it."

But the neighbors weren't content with the amicable exchange, in part because they haven't seen Ledson's compromises in writing.

"He has on his mind what he thinks is going to be beautiful for the neighborhood, but even though we talk to him, he doesn't listen real well," said Bob Salomon, who lives on Frey Road. "He keeps trying to sell us on the property."

Ledson submitted his original proposal a year ago, and the county's design review committee requested a number of changes, suggesting a scaled-down version of the winery buildings, among other things. Impact studies on noise, biology, greenhouse gases and traffic also are required before the application is complete, said county planner Traci Tesconi.

Converting the walnut orchards to vineyards is reviewed in a separate process, so Ledson has begun that work despite the incomplete winery application. Ledson plans to refile the winery application, although he has not said when he would do so.

"We're just taking our time and reevaluating what we're doing there, and doing a lot of research and trying to stay away from things that would create a commercial atmosphere," Ledson said.

View from the valley

Ledson's original proposal called for a 17,000-square-foot tasting room and hospitality building with 11 tasting rooms, 23 offices and a marketplace. Two 6,000-square-foot production buildings would sit behind the main structure.

"My goal is that when people drive by this piece of property, they'll go, 'God honey, see that old house? I bet that's one of those old homesteads,'" Ledson said. "I don't want this to look like a commercial winery. I want this to feel like an old family farm, which is who we are."

The design review committee recommended a host of changes, suggesting the number of offices should be reduced to just a few and that the overall building design should be "more rural in character and less massive."

"There isn't anything in the valley that looks anything like this," McVey said. "Personally, I think it's ugly."

Ledson plans to scale the winery building down to 7,500 square feet, he said.

"We've cut it more than in half," he said. "We cut out a whole floor."

That means it will be smaller than the nearby Ledson Winery, which is known as "The Castle" for its formidable features. Ledson began building that structure as a home in 1992, but he eventually turned it into a tasting room, because a steady stream of visitors arrived assuming they would be served wine. No wine is currently made on the property.

Ledson's wine business sold 30,000 cases of wine annually at its peak, fell to about 25,000 during the recession, and is currently up to about 27,000 cases, he said.

Having his own production facility would enable him to save money on leasing winery space and to do more environmental conservation, reusing winery water to irrigate vineyards, he said.

If the winery is approved, he plans to move production for all of his winemaking operations to the Frey Road facility.

Residents won't hear any more noise than they do during his walnut harvest, Ledson contends, because his wine tanks will be kept inside. He won't be as noisy as nearby wineries that have far larger operations, he said.

"I wouldn't want a big commercial operation," Ledson said. "I don't think they realize how small it would be. I just want to keep this in my family ranch for a long time."

Neighbors also are worried their wells may run dry if Ledson draws water for winemaking from the 1,000-foot well he recently dug on the property. Ledson says if that happened, he would share his water.

"He makes these promises, but we haven't seen anything," Salomon said. "These are just like idle promises that could make a difference if we saw that on paper."

Ledson plans to convene another meeting with neighbors in the next few weeks to discuss the proposal, he said.

"I really want it to be the most beautiful place you can imagine, and it will be," Ledson said. "If all of us can work together as a team, it will turn out so much better."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy. bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @cbussewitz.