A majority of Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voiced support for new regulations on one of the largest sectors of the local economy — wine-related tourism — a move that signals the likelihood the wine industry will face greater county scrutiny and potential limits on new development and business activity.
The consensus came about during a first-of-its-kind four-hour study session on the growth of the county’s signature industry. Supervisors agreed the county needs to act, citing widespread concern among residents about the increase in wineries that double as event centers and commercial impacts on roads, resources and the character of rural areas.
“I grew up in Dry Creek Valley. I’ve been to weddings and parties at vineyards, but it’s a different day now,” said Supervisor James Gore, who represents the north county, including Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. “This is from a guy who people say is owned by the wine industry.”
Supervisors Susan Gorin, Efren Carrillo and David Rabbitt joined Gore in calling for crackdowns on wineries found to be holding unauthorized events, with Gore and Rabbitt calling for a so-called “three-strikes” rule for wineries that repeatedly break the rules.
All four said they also are concerned about the cumulative impacts of winery development, and an increase in events in recent years that has worsened traffic, drained water supplies and added noise in rural neighborhoods. Of the 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits, 291 sites are allowed to host events.
The next move could include the drafting of new regulations that could limit such activities in the future, while balancing the needs of the wine industry. Planning commissioners and supervisors would need to sign off on any final rules.
“There is a balance that we need to strike, and we can’t do it without the industry’s participation and acknowledgment that the status quo isn’t perfect,” said Carrillo, who represents most of the Russian River Valley. “We also need to be mindful of the economic engine that agriculture provides here in the county.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane was absent.
Wine-related tourism generates $1.25 billion in Sonoma County each year, with an additional $13.4 billion in economic impacts, according to the county.
Supervisors were scheduled Tuesday to direct county planning officials to draft a potential ordinance setting new rules on the industry for adoption at a later date.
But the board halted such action after dozens of public speakers weighed in on county proposals, including options to limit amplified music, restrict events at some wineries situated off narrow country roads and regulate the type of food served in tasting rooms.
Wine industry representatives are seeking fewer limits on events, while neighborhood groups said the county must limit both new wineries and cap the number of events allowed.
“We are very concerned about this case-by-case permitting that has led to a local concentration of wineries and tasting rooms in Sonoma Valley, on West Dry Creek Road and on Westside Road,” said Padi Selwyn, co-chairwoman of the group Preserve Rural Sonoma County. “Sonoma County has reached a tipping point.”
The board voiced support for potential limits on wineries, tasting rooms and events in areas with a high level of wine-related tourism. Those could be the same areas that Selwyn mentioned in her comments Tuesday. Supervisors are set to reconvene the study session within 60 days.