Wilson family wins Sonoma County approval for 11th winery

The board voted 4-1 to approve the 25,000-case Hale Winery first proposed in Dry Creek Valley in 2005.|

Ken and Diane Wilson’s latest winery, to be built in the heart of Dry Creek Valley, won final approval Tuesday from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, leaving the couple relieved to get a green light 13 years after the project was first proposed.

Culminating a three-hour public hearing packed with accolades for the winemaking family, the board voted 4-1 to deny a valley resident’s appeal challenging a previous county decision supporting the project, which was first proposed in 2005.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents winery-rich Sonoma Valley, cast the lone no vote, saying she was concerned that supervisors have failed to resolve the high-stakes question of over-concentration of wineries, which number more than 440 outside city limits.

“We have yet to grapple with it,” she said, referring to an issue that gained public traction in 2014.

Ken Wilson, the 74-year-old patriarch who started buying land in Dry Creek Valley in the 1980s, said he was satisfied with the outcome.

“Glad to have it all done,” he said, calling the prolonged government review of what will be his 11th winery a “very expensive process - and a broken one.”

He declined to elaborate on that assessment.

He also said he did not know when construction would start on Hale Winery, a 25,000-case facility on 40 acres of vineyard owned by the Wilsons 4 miles north of their flagship winery on Dry Creek Road.

“I haven’t put any time into it,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

The Wilsons won approval of the winery in 2015, when county planning commissioners voted 3-1 to advance a 17,000-square-foot winery and tasting room building. But 11 days later an appeal was filed by a nearby resident, Andrew Dieden, kicking the decision to the supervisors.

“I don’t have any comment right now,” Dieden said following the hearing.

Arielle Harris, a San Francisco attorney representing Dieden, told the board her client wanted the winery to be built “but not in this particular manner.”

The parking lot should be moved back farther from the road and the winery should not be allowed to hold “industrywide events” that draw large crowds, she said. Roughly two-thirds of the county’s wineries are allowed to host events.

Dieden, who said he grew up on a family vineyard across the street from the Wilson vineyard, said the project’s plan is “not comprehensible,” lacks sufficient parking and is located “on a bottleneck” of the two-lane rural road that winds through the scenic valley from Healdsburg to Warm Springs Dam.

Supporters, including Wilson company officers and employees, consultants, growers who sell their grapes to him and the couple’s children, spoke highly of the proposal and the Wilsons’ character in comments to the board. Similar shows of public support by the wine industry have accompanied several closely watched votes in recent years advancing or approving disputed winery projects.

But board Chairman James Gore, who represents the area, downplayed the significance of such endorsements, saying the owner’s character is “not relevant” in a land use matter.

Dieden’s appeal cited the number of wineries in the area, and county planners identified 13 wineries and tasting rooms within 2 miles on Dry Creek Road north and south of the winery site.

Monte Hansen, a longtime resident, said the road was well maintained and had two bicycle lanes,

“I don’t believe for a minute another winery is going to have any impact on traffic,” he said.

Gorin said she was concerned about locating a parking lot in a scenic corridor, saying the project should be “moved back farther from the road.”

She also expressed dismay that the issue of winery overconcentration had been discussed for several years and “we have no resolution.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt said the parking lot could be screened off with a landscaped berm, adding that overconcentration is a tough issue.

“When do you say enough is enough,” he said. “We as a county have been very open to property rights.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said there was “no doubt” about winery overconcentration, yet wineries are important fundraisers for local charities.

The board held considerable debate over the number of events the new winery should be allowed, finally settling on the county staff proposal for 12 “agricultural promotion” events and eight “industrywide” events, with a reconsideration of the matter in a year.

Gore said the “real issue is enforcement and compliance,” rather than the standard set in a land use permit.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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