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Hop Kiln Winery, an iconic presence in the Russian River Valley, wants to triple its wine-making capacity and add an administration and hospitality center for public and private events.

It's part of an overall plan that winery officials say is necessary for Hop Kiln to compete in a tougher economic world.

"There are a lot more wineries. We have rising costs. There is more foreign competition," said David DiLoreto, the winery manager and chief executive officer.

"We have to be able to compete. We have to be more competitive in drawing people here and reach out to groups," he said.

Special events, such as weddings, have become integral to winery business plans, generating revenue and selling wine while also boosting Sonoma County wine tourism as a whole, said Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners.

"It is a very important part the wine industry, particularly for our smaller wineries," Comfort said. "The direct-to-consumer aspect, selling wines directly to consumers through tasting rooms, is important part of the wine industry, the pairing of food and wine and wine tourism."

If the county approves the plan, Hop Kiln could become the largest winery on Westside Road, a two-lane country road that skirts the Russian River and Dry Creek valleys and is heavily traveled by agriculture workers, winetasters and, increasingly, by recreational bicyclists.

The use permit application will be before the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Sonoma County planners are not objecting to the wine-making part of the proposal, but want to scale back the number of events requested and the size of the administration and hospitality building.

It is the size of the new building and the scale of events that have spurred criticism from Healdsburg groups over potential increases in traffic and noise.

"Our group doesn't believe a large events center should be along a rural road, but in the Highway 101 corridor," said Nancy Citro of the Westside Community Association.

"This event center is out of scale with our neighborhood. This area is zoned for agriculture and we don't think that events centers are for anything but commercial use."

Marc Bommersbach of the Westside Association to Save Agriculture said the rural atmosphere needs to be preserved. "We are opposed to the scale of the event center," he said.

"Our group has a lot of members who are farmers and grape growers. We are not opposed to grapes and wineries," Bommersbach said.

"The concern is that the focus is more on events and not making wine. It goes to the question of agriculture. Is this agriculture?"

Hop Kiln Winery's signature hop kilns, built in 1899, are an integral part of the winery's design and character. They were designated a Sonoma County Landmark and California Historical Landmark in 1976 and listed by the National Park Service in its National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

The winery also is in the Sweetwater Springs Historic District, which includes a scenic corridor on 200 feet on either side of Westside Road.

Westside Grapes, the owner of Hop Kiln, seeks a permit that would allow it to build a two-level, subterranean wine-making facility next to the historic hop buildings.

The expansion would allow the winery to increase annual production from 11,000 cases to 60,000 cases, which would make Hop Kiln the largest winery along Westside Road, said Sigrid Swedenborg, a county planner

Hop Kiln also is proposing an 11,440-square-foot, single-story building for administrative offices, private winetasting, events and some agriculture production.

Santa Rosa architect Neil Peoples said the building will be U-shaped, with a courtyard facing the existing winery, in a style of stone and horizontal plank walls meant to evoke a barn and the 113-year-old hop kilns.

The building would be situated inside the scenic corridor between the winery and Westside Road, but would not block the view of the hop kilns, Peoples said.

The proposal includes holding 38 special events a year, some with amplified music, drawing 50 to 500 people.

DiLoreto said that last year, Hop Kiln had 58 events without complaints, although county officials contend those events are not allowed under the current use permit.

The new use permit also would clean up code violations at the winery that date back six years. The violations include moving in a triple-wide coach for use as offices and the destruction of a historic house and a historic cabin without permits.

On June 7, Hop Kiln also was found to be in violation for bringing in a second commercial coach and for having erected a metal awning and tent canopy without permits.

DiLoreto said the new administration building will house the staff, vineyard manager and winemaker so the temporary offices can be removed. The new production facility also would eliminate the need for the awning and canopy that shade the crush pad.

Planners are recommending approval of the expansion of winemaking operations, but want that facility completed before the administration offices and hospitality are built.

"We are recommending they build the production facility, 41,000 square feet, first so we have production as the primary use of the site and not events and hospitality," Swedenborg said.

The county staff is recommending that the administration and hospitality building be scaled down and moved outside of the scenic corridor. They also recommend that only 17 special events be allowed.

Use of the existing Victorian house by out-of-town guests for marketing and businesses purposes would be allowed, but Hop Kiln would not be allowed to charge for the use.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.