David Ramey’s Westside Road winery approved by Sonoma County zoning board
One of Sonoma County’s most esteemed vintners has cleared a key hurdle on his way toward building a long-sought winery on Westside Road, but he’s bracing for continued opposition from residents who say his plans would place too great a strain on the rural corridor outside Healdsburg, already one of the most popular grape-growing and wine-tasting regions in the county.
David Ramey, winemaker and co-owner of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, received the blessing this week from a majority of planning officials who considered his proposal for a 60,000-case winery and tasting room operation that has been in the works since he and his wife, Carla, bought the 75-acre site of the former Westside Farms nearly five years ago.
While Ramey’s project passed the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments on a 3-to-1 vote Thursday, it could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors by any one of the residents who oppose the project, citing concerns about its scale and impact, including traffic from events and visitors to the public tasting room. Ramey is expecting an appeal, meaning supervisors could have the final say on the matter, barring a court battle.
“Hopefully, it won’t be (though),” Ramey said in an interview. “We think the project stands on its own merits.”
A well-known figure widely respected in the North Coast wine industry and beyond, Ramey has attracted numerous influential supporters, among them several other high-profile winemakers and neighbors of the vineyard where he wants to build the new winery.
His project, nevertheless, has been ensnared in much wider, countywide debate over the proliferation of wineries and tasting rooms, along with the events that often accompany them, fueling tension with residents who say some areas have reached a tipping point.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to resume its deliberation over policies to govern some of the disputed expansion, including potential limits on wineries that often double as event centers. Ramey’s project, if appealed, could be another test case of how the board intends to regulate the county’s signature industry, particularly in the premier wine-growing areas of Westside Road, Dry Creek Valley and the Sonoma Valley.
Already, 29 permitted wineries or tasting rooms exist in the Westside Road area, according to county planning officials, and four are located within a half-mile of Ramey’s vineyard. The zoning board earlier this year rejected two other Westside Road proposals, one a winery and the other a tasting room, prompting appeals by proponents to the Board of Supervisors.
Another small winery with public tasting and 18 annual events also has been proposed near Ramey’s site, according to county planning staff.
“There are already too many wineries and tasting rooms in this particular area, in my view,” said Greg Carr, the lone zoning board member to vote against Ramey’s plan at Thursday’s meeting. “I don’t know whether … anybody will agree with me on whether this is overconcentrated. I think it is, and I think it’s very similar to some areas of west Dry Creek and some areas of Sonoma Valley.”
Ramey has been living and making wine on the North Coast for nearly 40 years, he said. He helped establish Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill wineries. In 1996, he and his wife started Ramey Wine Cellars and have grown it from a small, 260-case operation into a 40,000-case business with wine sold across the country and abroad.
The Rameys’ winery currently operates out of leased buildings in Healdsburg, but the couple wants to transition into property they actually own and where they already grow wine grapes.
“I hope you can see that this has evolved into too substantial of a business to not control our own winery, to not have our own winery to pass onto our kids and then hopefully their kids,” Ramey told the zoning board. “One thing I want to emphasize is that we’re proposing a real winery: 60,000 cases is classified by the county as a mid-size winery. This is not an event center.”
Ramey’s property at 7097 Westside Road - the site for many years of a popular pumpkin patch - has 32 acres of chardonnay grapes and 10 acres of pinot noir.
Ramey wants to build a 32,210-square-foot winery building and a 20,720-square-foot wine cave on the west side of the site. On the property’s east side, he has proposed converting an old hop kiln building into a public tasting room and transforming an old hop barn into a reserve tasting room with marketing space for two guests on the upper floor.
Under the conditions approved by the zoning board, Ramey would be allowed to host 20 events, including participation in two industrywide events that would have a maximum of 300 guests.