Large winery proposal on Highway 12 to undergo full environmental review

Joe Wagner said the breadth of opposition to his Dairyman project along Highway 12 demanded greater effort to demonstrate its potential and address any significant impacts.|

A Napa County winemaker whose plans for a large-scale winery and distillery on Highway 12 between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa have sparked significant dispute since they were unveiled earlier this year has decided to subject the project to a full environmental impact report in hopes of addressing the public’s many questions and concerns.

Joe Wagner, a member of the Caymus Vineyards winemaking family, said it’s been clear for weeks that the breadth of opposition to his Dairyman project demanded greater effort on his part to demonstrate its potential for improving the site’s appearance and productivity without substantial environmental harm.

He said he confirmed his decision to engage in a full-scale independent environmental review for the project after meeting last week with 5th District Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who agreed it was the right approach.

“Obviously, it’s expensive and lengthy,” Wagner said Friday, “but it is something that allows the community the opportunity to join in and chime in and become part of the process.”

But it’s not clear additional study will assuage Wagner’s critics, some of whom are holding a community gathering Saturday in Jenner to discuss the larger winery backlash that organizer Shepherd Bliss said has coalesced around the Dairyman plan and other recent winery proposals.

“It is a stoppable project,” said Bliss, a Sebastopol farmer and longtime activist, “and we will stop it.”

Wagner has used pinot noir grapes grown on the former Medeiros Dairy site near Llano Road since 2003, adding them to premium wines bottled under his Belle Glos label.

He bought the full 68-acre property about two years ago and proposes converting existing buildings and constructing new ones for a winery and distillery capable of producing up to 500,000 cases of wine and 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits annually, as well as an administration building and hospitality center.

The Dairyman facility would host daily tours and wine tasting, as well as about 58 promotional events each year, some for as many as 600 people, according to an application submitted to the county planning department last winter.

Wagner submitted initial biological and traffic studies with his application for a county use permit in hopes of avoiding the kind of full environmental review to which he has now committed. The project would require a new left-turn lane from Highway 12 to accommodate additional traffic. Wagner said he also plans to build only on areas of the property that already were disturbed by the dairy operation so as to leave any tiger salamander habitat untouched.

But opposition to the proposal was immediate when it became public in late January, with opponents particularly citing the potential for increased noise and traffic on the already busy two-lane corridor between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa; plans for the winery entry drive to cross the popular Joe Rodota Trail; and concerns about the volume of water that would be needed for the facility, especially amid the state’s prolonged drought.

The Sebastopol City Council, though it has no jurisdiction over land-use decisions for the site, voted unanimously Feb. 3 to urge county decision-makers to reject the project. The signal came amid a clear shift in the local political climate that has intensified public scrutiny of - and opposition to - winery projects, which some critics say too often resemble event centers or industrial plants rather than agricultural sites.

The presumed toll on water supply should alone be enough to stop the project, Sebastopol Councilman John Eder said Friday. He called the winery “the wrong project in the wrong era in the wrong place.”

“It’s horrible timing,” Wagner conceded, citing what he called a burgeoning “anti-growth, anti-winery sort of mentality” in both Napa and Sonoma counties, much of it driven by concerns about water availability.

“Just looking at the scope of the project and also the community’s concerns, it’s better to go full bore and show everybody the good, the bad and the ugly, and make a plan to fix it if there’s something that needs to be addressed,” Wagner said.

He said the Sebastopol City Council vote alerted him early on to the headwinds facing his proposal, and got him thinking about a detailed environmental impact report as a means of addressing concerns.

County planner Traci Tesconi said she also had alerted Wagner to responses from Caltrans and an independent traffic engineer who reviewed his traffic analysis and raised issues that warranted additional study.

Wagner contacted Carrillo, who met with him last week and reinforced the need for a full review of the project, both because of its scope and the political realities.

Carrillo said it was clear full environmental review “was absolutely necessary,” but said Wagner needed no real persuading.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Carrillo said.

Wagner said he and his team would be meeting with county planning staff in May to discuss the scope of the upcoming analysis, which he said he expected would take up to 12 months and cost up to $500,000.

But he said the project ultimately would set a new benchmark for efficient use of resources and provide a new model for the wine industry to emulate.

“I’d like to have our chance to prove that to the public in a more civil manner than the approach that some have taken,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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