Sonoma County winery development at issue in debate about events

The Board of Supervisors is set to weigh in for the first time publicly on a range of winery regulations this week, including limits on events and curbs on future winery development.|

Sonoma County winery events and development

Tuesday: 2 p.m. Board of Supervisors study session on winery events.

By winter: Supervisors expect to have a draft ordinance on potential new regulations on winery development and events ready for review by the county Planning Commission.

Next spring: Supervisors are expected to take up potential ordinance on new regulations for the wine industry.


To see a map of approved wineries in Sonoma County click here

Sonoma County has approved more than 300 new wineries and tasting rooms in the past 16 years - a nearly 360 percent increase over the previous three decades - and many of those wineries have decided in recent years to boost business by offering an array of events, from wine-tasting dinners to weddings and harvest parties.

Representatives of the county's multibillion-dollar wine industry say such events are vital for local vintners to sell their wines and stay competitive.

But the industry's growth has sparked strong blowback from many rural residents, who say unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.

The expansion has fueled an intense standoff between wine industry supporters and critics over the extent of commercial activity in rural pockets of the county, on properties zoned for agriculture. Supporters say wineries and the county's 62,135 acres of developed vineyards have protected big swaths of open space, preserved a local farm economy and transformed Sonoma County into a destination for travelers from across the globe.

“There may be some unhappy neighbors, but I think there are a lot of people who are happy with what wineries are doing for the county, economically and philanthropically,” said Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, a local trade organization.

But critics say the industry's expansion has gone overboard, impacting daily life for winery neighbors while clogging area roads, draining natural resources and fostering what some have described as a year-round party atmosphere, attracting thousands of visitors to the most popular annual events.

“The county needs to evaluate the cumulative impact of this explosive growth,” said Marc Bommersbach, a Healdsburg resident who lives along Westside Road, home to more than 20 wineries. Nine others have been approved but are not yet built. “It's the traffic and noise for adjacent property owners, but the bigger issue is that all of this development is commercializing our agricultural lands and diminishing the rural character of this county.”

The debate has escalated from small neighborhood disputes into hourslong discussions at packed public meetings. In the last year it has also been inflamed by a county crackdown on two Healdsburg-area wineries for hosting what county officials said were unauthorized events. Added to the mix was celebrity chef Guy Fieri's proposal to build a new winery on a rural road west of Santa Rosa, a plan rejected 18 months ago by county planning commissioners amid overwhelming opposition from neighbors.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is set to weigh in for the first time publicly in the broader debate. The planned 2 p.m. workshop is meant to decide the county's approach on a range of potential regulations, including limits on events and curbs on future winery development in some popular grape-growing regions.

“This is an important step to formulate what future legislation may look like,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman. “We want to ensure the long-term preservation of agriculture and open space in this county, but we also have to manage the impacts of the industry. Events in some cases have gotten out of hand, and I think we've seen that in the escalation of concern from various communities.”

Wine industry representatives are asking the county to relax its rules on events, while neighborhood groups are pressing county officials to rein in winery development and cap the number of sanctioned events. At present, 291 of the 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits are allowed to hold events, adding up to more than 2,600 event days per year, according to county data.

Industry representatives and local vintners suggested any large-scale effort to restrict the flow of commerce is government overreach. They contend the controversy centers on a few wineries known to break the rules.

“It's unfortunate that we've had one or two bad apples,” said Sessions. “We sustain by selling our wine, and the best way to gain long-term customers - especially for smaller wineries - is to develop those relationships for life. That's why these activities and events are so important.”

But neighborhood groups and rural residents say winery development has grown too quickly across the county, from Dry Creek Valley in the north to Sonoma Valley in the south. As county officials confront a sharp increase in applications for new tasting rooms and event permits, industry critics say a new wave of activity could add to the problems, increasing traffic, draining water supplies and adding outside noise.

They cite projects such as the Dairyman Winery and Distillery, proposed by Napa vintner Joe Wagner on 68 acres off Highway 12 near Sebastopol. Plans for the large 500,000-case winery have envisioned events with up to 600 guests. Environmentalists and community activists have singled out the project as a symbol of rampant over-development by the wine industry, a sign of what some have dubbed Sonoma County's “Napafication.”

For his part, Wagner has committed to a full-scale environmental review that he previously said would “allow the community the opportunity to join in and chime in and become part of the process.”

But smaller projects are attracting similar scrutiny, with backlash against the wine industry surfacing in places famed for grape-growing and wine tourism. The opposition facing a much smaller Kenwood winery project typifies the now-common public reaction to winery development countywide. The owners of Kenwood Vineyards are seeking approval for a new 4,100-square-foot tasting room and permission to host 22 annual events, including some with outdoor music.

A community meeting last month about the proposal drew more than 80 people, with many voicing concerns about the project.

“People in Kenwood are frustrated by the cumulative impact on the village of all these events and wineries,” said Kathy Pons, president of the Valley of the Moon Alliance, a Sonoma Valley neighborhood group. “It's getting kind of scary to see what agriculture has morphed into.”

Jeremy Wright, vice president of operations for a U.S.-based subsidiary of the French wine and spirits giant Pernod Ricard, which purchased Kenwood Vineyards in 2014, said the winery has “tried to be a good neighbor.”

“We understand people are anxious about the growth of wineries and events, but we've been as respectful as we can and tried to listen to people's concerns,” Wright said. “We feel we've listened to those concerns and proposed a modest plan.”

The winery holds numerous events per year, a practice that Wright said he understands is allowed under county rules.

“We've always had them, so nothing is really going to change,” Wright said. “We think it's important to have a good place for visitors to come and see and experience how our wines are made.”

The apparent conflict is not unusual in the county, prompting vintners to repeatedly urge the Board of Supervisors and planners to clarify winery rules for what is allowed and prohibited.

The county allows commercial activity, including events or wine tastings, in agricultural areas as long as it promotes the product grown or raised on site or in the vicinity, according to Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of planning at the county's Permit and Resource Management Department. But if impacts from events on groundwater, traffic and rural character are excessive, the county's general plan calls for those events to be limited by permit, with exceptions for popular industrywide events such as the annual Passport to Dry Creek Valley.

As another example, a large wedding would qualify as an event that would need proper permitting, whereas participation in the annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting would typically be allowed without prior approvals. Some winery owners believe they are allowed to host smaller events like wine-pairing dinners without prior approval, whereas county planning officials are increasingly requiring vintners to acquire permits for such activities.

Determining the right balance, and whether to approve a new winery or additional events, is the job of county planning commissioners. The Board of Supervisors, however, sets policy and handles appeals.

“It's hard for applicants to know what to expect because there's really no clear definitions,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, who tracks political affairs for the local wine industry.

That confusion has been cited as a factor in two county crackdowns on alleged unauthorized events at two Dry Creek Valley wineries. In 2014, the county ordered Bella Vineyards, an award-winning winery on West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, to end participation in all events. County planning officials said the winery had been holding unauthorized events for years.

Last year, the county also served the owners of Wilson Winery on Dry Creek Road a violation notice that required them to halt participation in some events. The winery's owners, Ken and Diane Wilson, agreed in a settlement not to participate in some events.

Bella co-owner Lynn Adams said the winery has complied with the county's order not to participate in events. Adams, however, has appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors, and contends that Bella has not broken any county rules. While that appeal is pending, Adams late last month filed a request with the county asking to participate in up to five industry-wide events, lasting no more than 10 days, and to host six agricultural promotional events with up to 100 people each.

Adams and other vintners say such events are important to market their wines directly to consumers.

“The flip side of being a small family winery is that many of us are too tiny to get national sales distribution,” said Adams, whose winery produces 15,000 cases per year. “We rely on our tasting rooms and knowing people will come to visit us.”

In Sonoma County, 56 percent of wineries produce less than 10,000 cases of wine. Thirty percent of local wineries produce 10,000 to 50,000 cases per year, and 15 percent produce more than 50,000 cases a year, according to county data.

It is difficult for many of those small- and medium-sized wineries to break into large distributor networks, said Richard Idell, a Sonoma vintner who is also a board member on the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers, a trade organization.

“The ability to have someone visit your winery and taste your wines, and join your wine club is so important these days because so many smaller family-owned wineries can't get distribution even if they wanted to,” Idell said. “That original connection with the food and the wine helps someone remember that activity or event, and it becomes the basis of a future relationship with that winery.”

Sonoma County winery events and development

Tuesday: 2 p.m. Board of Supervisors study session on winery events.

By winter: Supervisors expect to have a draft ordinance on potential new regulations on winery development and events ready for review by the county Planning Commission.

Next spring: Supervisors are expected to take up potential ordinance on new regulations for the wine industry.


To see a map of approved wineries in Sonoma County click here

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