Sonoma County settles with vintner who flouted environmental rules
A Sonoma County vintner who flouted environmental and agricultural regulations will be forced to repair a damaged hillside and pay fines and fees totaling more than $170,000, according to a settlement agreement between the property owner and the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.
The settlement with winery owner Fahri Diner, a tech entrepreneur, stems from illegal grading, unpermitted replanting and other violations at Skipstone Ranch, Diner’s small winery on a 200-acre estate vineyard property in Alexander Valley.
The fine of $150,000, plus permit fees spelled out in the settlement, require Skipstone to pay the county a total of $170,467, the largest land-use penalty ever issued by county agricultural officials.
“In my mind, it was an egregious action,” said James Gore, the Sonoma County supervisor whose district includes Skipstone Ranch. “I won’t say whether it was knowing or not, but the settlement was not only in the favor of the county, but the environment.”
Diner, who made his fortune in sophisticated, light-based communications systems before opening Skipstone in 2009, acknowledged in the agreement signed last week that “errors were made.”
But a spokeswoman for Diner and his wine and olive oil operation struck a defiant tone in characterizing the county’s enforcement efforts as “illegal, unconstitutional and excessive.”
Still, spokeswoman Susan Barnes said Diner won’t pursue litigation in the wake of the settlement, which was made official Jan. 22.
“As far as he’s concerned, he’s overpaying for these fines,” Barnes said. “But he wants to move on restoring his property and just put this to bed.”
The settlement agreement brings to an end a monthslong appeal process that followed the county’s July 10 notice of violation.
Skipstone Ranch, which produces 2,000 cases of wine per year, specializing in cabernet sauvignon and viognier, appealed the violations tied to illegal grading, unpermitted replanting and unsanctioned construction work. Appeal hearings scheduled for October and then December were pushed back, and the settlement deal Jan. 22 came on the latest scheduled hearing date.
As part of the agreement, Skipstone will pay triple the normal rate to obtain permits for vineyard to regrade the damaged hillside that was terraced last summer in what county officials allege was a scheme to illicitly plant more wine grapes on the property.
The first $75,000 payment is due by Monday.
Diner also is required to obtain a deed restriction on the parcel, a legal maneuver that will permanently prohibit the planting of vineyards on the hillside that was illegally graded, according to the settlement.
Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith could not be reached over two days last week for comment, but Gore said the move to block future development on the affected site was rare. It had his support.
“It’s very uncommon. I don’t know if it’s happened before,” Gore said.
In the winery’s initial appeal, Santa Rosa land-use attorney Tina Wallis sought to cast Diner as a model landowner and Skipstone Ranch as an asset to the county.
Diner has donated $88,000 to firefighters since September 2018, and Skipstone has a $27 million annual impact on the county, according to legal documents filed in the dispute.
“Mr. Diner works with Skipstone to elevate the reputation of Alexander Valley and the entire county,” Wallis stated in her legal response to the county.
Barnes said Diner’s goal was to demonstrate that Skipstone, a certified sustainable winegrower with no prior violations, is a respected operator that would never knowingly flout county rules or cause environmental damage. Company officials have maintained since the start that the grading activity was tied strictly to repairs related to the 2019 Kincade fire that burned 77,000 acres in Sonoma County, and that the winery had no intention of planting additional grapevines.
Barnes said the county overstepped in its enforcement.
“Clearly mistakes were made by the property owner in mitigating the Kincade fire disaster,” said Barnes. “And the county violated federal, state and its own ordinances in providing a fair enforcement process and in imposing fines that were illegal, unconstitutional and excessive.”
Gore said the wine growers he regularly works with, including others in the Alexander Valley who reported the violation, support the county’s actions, which he added should serve as a warning.
“It is an operator-beware kind of moment with this settlement,” Gore said.
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @tylersilvy