Sonoma County in settlement talks with Skipstone Ranch Winery after record land-use fine
Sonoma County is in settlement talks with representatives of a Geyserville vineyard and winery accused of flouting land-use rules last summer and facing a $172,282 fine, the largest ever issued by the county’s Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures.
Skipstone Ranch Winery, owned by billionaire tech entrepreneur Fahri Diner, was accused by the county of unpermitted grading on a steep Alexander Valley hillside that forms part of its 200-acre estate vineyard property.
County officials, citing the winery’s willful disregard for local rules and processes, rejected early settlement offers. But after postponing the company’s Dec. 11 appeal hearing, county agriculture officials now say they’re zeroing in on a settlement agreement ahead of the rescheduled Jan. 22 date.
“The attorneys are hammering out terms for a potential settlement right now,” said Andy Casarez, agriculture and vineyard conservation coordinator for the county.
It’s unclear what such a settlement would entail, with both sides declining this week to elaborate on possible terms, but it could include a fine reduction and an agreement from the company to restore the acre of land damaged during the unpermitted work.
Officials with Skipstone confirmed negotiations were ongoing, but declined to comment, citing what they called “confidential settlement discussions.”
County agriculture officials documented an industrial grading operation on a steep hillside along the northwestern edge of the vineyard property off of Geysers Road. It resulted in nearly identical terracing to adjacent, pre-existing hillside vineyard plantings on the property, according to the county’s notice of violation. The report also accuses the property owner of other unpermitted plantings.
Skipstone Ranch appealed all three violations and objected to the fine amount. The winery argued that the grading work was merely repairing damage caused by the 2019 Kincade fire as it swept across the property and scorched than 70,000 acres of Sonoma County countryside.
But county agriculture officials pointed to Cal Fire and state water quality protocols that suggest terracing a slope as the winery had would be a “highly unorthodox” approach for the simple purpose of accessing burnt trees or improving hillside stability.
County regulators, in issuing the record fine last year, cited the “severity of the violation and the safety hazard created by the unpermitted work.”
Skipstone Ranch includes a 15,000-case winery and has operated in the county for a decade with no previous record of fines.
The previous record fine issued by the county agricultural department was for $50,000 in November 2019 related to wetland disruption.
Still, Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith suggested the county would like to see closure on the Skipstone Ranch case, defending the decision to pursue a settlement.
“Settlements as a form of resolving an enforcement action are a valuable tool and an important aspect of providing due process to those who may have violated the county code,” Smith said in an email. “As this case has not been fully resolved, I will not comment further.”
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.