Sonoma County cracks down on Bella Vineyards
Bella Vineyards is situated at the end of West Dry Creek Road, a narrow, winding county byway that curves along remote hillsides north of Healdsburg. The winery is famous for its robust zinfandels and romantic wine cave dinners, its accolades detailed in wine industry magazines and on review sites such as Yelp.
“What really makes Bella is the setting and the events produced here,” one reviewer wrote. “Tastings are conducted inside the barrel cellars, within giant caves dug out of the hillsides,” wrote another.
Sonoma County officials, however, are alleging that owners Lynn and Scott Adams have been running their winery outside of county rules for more than a decade. In response, planning commissioners voted unanimously last week to halt all wine-related events at Bella Vineyards and to cease public tastings in its popular wine cave.
At a rare public hearing Thursday for the Board of Zoning Adjustments, planners with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department listed a procession of alleged permit infringements - most notably, big parties like a rosé release event, a harvest party and late-night dinners. Following the four-hour hearing, planning commissioners voted 5-0 to scale back the winery’s use permit, rescinding permission to participate in events altogether.
The new rules revoke any previous rights to participate in?industry-wide attractions such as barrel tastings or events like the popular Wine Country Weekend or Wine & Food Affair. The wine cave is restricted to storage only, though public tastings in the primary tasting room are allowed. The decision, reached by straw vote, requires a final vote scheduled for Nov. 20.
“This is the first time I’ve restricted what wineries are allowed to do,” said Jason Liles, a planning commissioner representing the 4th District, appointed by Supervisor Mike McGuire. “But it’s my feeling, after looking at all the information, that the county and Bella have not been on the same page.”
Planning officials said the Board of Supervisors specifically forbid special events when Bella obtained its use permit in 2000. Lawyers representing the winery disputed the county’s findings, arguing that its use permit allows for events and other activities that promote Bella’s wines.
Bella co-owner Lynn Adams, who was present at Thursday’s hearing, declined to comment, but Bella representatives said the winery owners would continue talking with county planning officials to find a solution and preserve their business.
“We’ve been working with the county for a while to try and get all this worked out,” said David Majerus, Bella’s general manager. “I don’t really appreciate the way things have been done at the county, but we’re going to continue to work with them to find a compromise that the neighbors and Bella are happy with.”
Officials recalled only one other time in Sonoma County’s history when such strict action was taken against a winery. The use permit for Rabbit Ridge Winery - the rogue operation that moved production to Paso Robles after a 2001 battle over permitted buildings - was revoked, Chief Deputy County Counsel David Hurst said.
Scrutiny over the type and size of events allowed at wineries has mounted in recent years, as the number of winery owners seeking use permits allowing events has skyrocketed amid growing demand for event space in popular wine regions.
Supervisors in 2000 granted Bella Vineyards approval to open for public wine tasting with no special events, according to the use permit. While the definition of what constitutes a special event has evolved with the region’s popularity since 2000, former planning director Pete Parkinson two years ago warned Bella that the county could revoke its permit if it did not stop holding events.
“Our office has received a complaint that events were being hosted at Bella Winery without permits,” Parkinson wrote in an April 2012 email to the winery’s lawyer. “Holding these events will constitute a violation of the use permit conditions and will subject your client to enforcement action up to and including modification or revocation of the use permit.”
At the time, Bella was allowed to participate in wine industry events. Since then, however, the winery has continued to hold larger events, advertising them as “happenings” and “gatherings.”
County Planning Director Tennis Wick, who initiated enforcement action against Bella, said well-documented evidence of Bella hosting non-permitted events gave the county grounds to prohibit future events altogether.
“My observation over the last six months is that conventional enforcement action has not worked,” Wick said. “We need to assess the impacts on the community.”