Early this month, Sonoma County planning commissioners unanimously approved a new winery location for Geyserville-based Silver Oak Cellars, including as many as 26 events for the 120,000-case winery in Alexander Valley.
The project, scaled back from initial plans calling for 55 annual events, is among a rush of applications for both new wineries and expanded operations that can double as event centers.
Of the 21 applications submitted countywide in the past two years — a 75 percent jump over the previous two-year period — 14 have been approved, and all but one have been in the north county’s 4th supervisorial district, where a pivotal election Nov. 4 will determine the majority on the Board of Supervisors and the level of regulation of the county’s signature industry.
Both candidates in the race for the 4th District seat have been careful to assure rural neighbors they are listening to concerns about the proliferation of events and increased traffic. They have offered policy ideas, but neither has been specific about regulations they would impose on events for a wine industry that draws in more than half of the county’s annual 7.5 million tourists, according to industry reports, and has become county’s identity to much of the outside world.
Mounting opposition to winery projects — and the discovery that some wineries are hosting dozens of unauthorized events year-round — has led county planning officials to draw up tighter limits, and to take a rare punitive step recently.
The Board of Zoning Adjustments endorsed action to halt all events and popular wine cave tastings at Bella Vineyards on West Dry Creek Road outside Healdsburg. The move, which came Oct. 16, a week after Silver Oak sailed through, was the result of what planning officials described as a procession of permit infringements dating back more than a decade.
Bella is one of a trio of winemaking and tasting locations in the 4th District that have ignited debate about winery events in the race for north county supervisor between Deb Fudge and James Gore. The two candidates have been facing questions about the issue on the campaign trail.
“I would say Silver Oak and Bella are a study in contrasts,” said Fudge, a veteran Windsor Town councilwoman. “Silver Oak worked with neighbors, and in the end neighbors supported them, whereas Bella has been flaunting their events for years and ignoring county rules.”
Bella officials contend that they have been complying with their permit and called the county’s allegations “misleading and inaccurate,” saying officials “omitted many critical facts.”
“We have made every effort to comply with our use permit and have worked with the county throughout the years to ensure that we have been hosting the allowed events,” Bella co-owner Lynn Scott said in a written statement.
Both candidates, however, said they agreed with the zoning board’s unanimous decision to scale back Bella’s permit. A final vote by the zoning board is set for Nov. 20.
“Bella has been out of compliance for so many years, that I think the county made the right decision,” Fudge said. “It was extreme, but in my opinion Bella needs to get with the program.”
Charlee Schanzer, who lives about a mile from Bella, said nearly every weekend she witnesses limousines carrying groups of people past her house. She says she has to pull to the side of the road to let other cars pass.