Sonoma County supervisors signal support for limits on wineries, events
A majority of Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voiced support for new regulations on one of the largest sectors of the local economy - wine-related tourism - a move that signals the likelihood the wine industry will face greater county scrutiny and potential limits on new development and business activity.
The consensus came about during a first-of-its-kind four-hour study session on the growth of the county’s signature industry. Supervisors agreed the county needs to act, citing widespread concern among residents about the increase in wineries that double as event centers and commercial impacts on roads, resources and the character of rural areas.
“I grew up in Dry Creek Valley. I’ve been to weddings and parties at vineyards, but it’s a different day now,” said Supervisor James Gore, who represents the north county, including Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. “This is from a guy who people say is owned by the wine industry.”
Supervisors Susan Gorin, Efren Carrillo and David Rabbitt joined Gore in calling for crackdowns on wineries found to be holding unauthorized events, with Gore and Rabbitt calling for a so-called “three-strikes” rule for wineries that repeatedly break the rules.
All four said they also are concerned about the cumulative impacts of winery development, and an increase in events in recent years that has worsened traffic, drained water supplies and added noise in rural neighborhoods. Of the 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits, 291 sites are allowed to host events.
The next move could include the drafting of new regulations that could limit such activities, while balancing the needs of the wine industry. Planning commissioners and supervisors would need to sign off on any final rules.
“There is a balance that we need to strike, and we can’t do it without the industry’s participation and acknowledgment that the status quo isn’t perfect,” said Carrillo, who represents most of the Russian River Valley. “We also need to be mindful of the economic engine that agriculture provides here in the county.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane was absent.
Wine-related tourism generates $1.25 billion in Sonoma County each year, with an additional $13.4 billion in economic impacts, according to the county.
Supervisors were scheduled Tuesday to direct county planning officials to draft a potential ordinance setting new rules on the industry for adoption at a later date.
But the board halted such action after dozens of public speakers weighed in on proposals, including options to limit amplified music, restrict events at some wineries situated off narrow country roads and regulate the type of food served in tasting rooms.
Wine industry representatives are seeking fewer limits on events, while neighborhood groups said the county must limit both new wineries and cap the number of events allowed.
“We are very concerned about this case-by-case permitting that has led to a local concentration of wineries and tasting rooms in Sonoma Valley, on West Dry Creek Road and on Westside Road,” said Padi Selwyn, co-chairwoman of the group Preserve Rural Sonoma County. “Sonoma County has reached a tipping point.”
The board voiced support for potential limits on wineries, tasting rooms and events in areas with a high level of wine-related tourism. Those could be the same areas that Selwyn mentioned in her comments Tuesday. Supervisors are set to reconvene the study session within 60 days.
Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley, was the most outspoken about the need for regulations. She said her office is often inundated with calls from concerned neighbors who live near wineries and tasting rooms.
“We have a lot of tasting rooms and we have a lot of events,” said Gorin, whose district also includes Bennett Valley east of Santa Rosa.
“We need to think about how much is too much.”
Wine industry representatives floated a proposal that would relax the county’s current definition of permitted events, allowing wineries to host activities that increase direct-to-consumer sales, such as dinners and release parties. Sonoma County Vintners, the winemakers’ trade group, also proposed creating an oversight and compliance officer to respond to community concerns and resolve disputes with neighbors.
Most of Sonoma County wineries are small, family-owned business that produce fewer than 50,000 cases. Vintners said events help them sell their wine, promote agriculture and sustain an industry that preserves farmland and open space.
“It seems like a lot of people have forgotten what agriculture truly is,” said Mike Martini, a partner and general manager of Taft Street Winery in the Russian River Valley. “Agriculture is, in fact, commercial. If we start tinkering with the permitting process, the people we’re driving out of the business are not the Jackson Family wineries, it’s the small family producers.”