Winery events a hot-button issue in 4th District race
When restaurateur and Food Network star Guy Fieri sought approval in April to build a new 10,000-case winery west of Santa Rosa, a county zoning board postponed voting on his proposal after hearing neighbors protest. Dozens of residents in the Willowside Road area complained about increased traffic on their narrow country road and opposed 14 proposed winery events a year they said would invite loud noise into the evening hours.
Twenty miles north on a similar rural road, the entrance sign at Michel-Schlumberger, a winery in Dry Creek Valley, touts “vineyard tours and wine tasting daily.” The winery’s website advertises events. On May 3, it was Derby Day, a celebration of the Kentucky Derby. Later in May, it was a Mother’s Day brunch, and a few weeks later a Memorial Day picnic.
The winery’s permit, however, does not allow public wine tasting or special events, according to Sonoma County planning officials.
Less than 6 miles north on West Dry Creek Road, Bella Vineyards - known for its zinfandel and wine cave tastings - has for years held numerous parties and participated in special events that county planners say were not authorized in the winery’s permit.
The trio of conflicts, with neighbors and county rules, all have occurred in the county’s 4th supervisorial district, spanning such famous wine regions as the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. Other corners of Sonoma County have not been immune to similar issues, but the 4th District has become the hot spot for fights over the expansion of wineries that double as event centers, with packed calendars including weddings, harvest parties and winemaker dinners.
The offerings have become an important marketing tool and revenue source for the county’s wineries, which now number more than 400. Only 132 wineries are allowed to hold special events outside of industrywide functions or regular public tasting. That amounts to nearly 2,700 permitted events a year, according to county records.
But rising public outcry over winery events - including unauthorized functions - has led to closer attention recently on impacts that opponents say range from increased traffic and noise to strain on scarce water resources. The issue, spotlighted in a rare county move two weeks ago to crack down on Bella, is a central topic of discussion in the race between James Gore and Deb Fudge to decide who takes over for Mike McGuire as 4th District supervisor. On the campaign trail, both candidates say rural residents’ complaints about events have intensified.
“It’s one of the biggest problems I’ve been hearing about - businesses are operating in a gray area, and neighbors are frustrated,” said Gore, a former Obama administration appointee whose campaign has major backing from the wine industry. “It’s complicated, because we need to support industries that are the lifeblood of our economy. At the same time, the winery has to fit the community.”
Fudge, a longtime Windsor Town councilwoman favored by environmental groups, said that compared to four years ago, when she ran unsuccessfully for supervisor, protests have grown more pronounced.
“Tempers are flaring,” Fudge said. “I hear lots of complaints about the special events.”
Both candidates are guarded in revealing their positions on the most controversial projects in the 4th District - including Bella, Michel-Schlumberger and Fieri’s new winery proposal. They were clearer in staking out differing priorities on how they would deal with the expansion of wineries into the county’s rural pockets, as well as broader policies to regulate events.
Fudge said she would focus on county-driven studies assessing specific areas to avoid over-concentration of event centers. Gore outlined an approach that would invest much of the decision making about projects to advisory groups consisting of neighbors and businesses.
The winner of the Nov. 4 election likely will play a major role in shaping the county’s direction on the matter. A win by Fudge would solidify an alliance of three supervisors backed by environmental groups, including Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, and likely lead to a tighter regulatory approach on winery events. A Gore victory would form a board majority backed by farming interests, including Efren Carrillo and David Rabbitt, and likely maintain looser industry rules.
The Board of Supervisors this week is set to vote whether to make rules for winery events a top work priority in the coming year. Already, supervisors and planning commissioners often defer to the representative of the district where a proposal is located, and the majority of applications for new wineries and winery events are concentrated in the northern part of the county represented by McGuire, who running for state Senate.