Wilson Winery events under scrutiny

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Sonoma County planning officials are cracking down on Ken and Diane Wilson for what they say are a series of permit violations at the couple’s flagship Wilson Winery in the heart of Dry Creek Valley. The couple has been accused of hosting wine-related parties and events that overflow the region with traffic and noise.

The Wilsons, who own eight wineries in world-class wine grape growing regions in northern Sonoma County, argue they are being unfairly targeted, but county officials contend that the well-known winemaking duo are breaking the county’s rules, and flagrantly advertising and holding a slate of unauthorized events.

“I take the integrity of our county code seriously, and if people are going to violate it, they’re going to hear from me,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, who initiated strict action last year against another winery accused of breaking the rules for years. “We had similar concerns about violations with Bella.”

Sonoma County code enforcement officials served the Wilsons with a notice of violation May 6. The notice, essentially an order to stop holding events, was not made public until late last week. Driven by a wave of complaints from nearby residents citing concerns with vehicles and noise in their neighborhood, the action concludes a three-week investigation into Wilson by county code enforcement officials, who said they verified numerous complaints. Ken Wilson is appealing the notice and is set to appear in front of an administrative hearing officer later this month to argue his case.

“We didn’t know (we had) to ask for them,” said Wilson, reached at his vacation home near Toronto. He pointed out that the use permit for Wilson Winery — like hundreds of permits issued years ago for many other Sonoma County wineries — does not mention events.

“It was just assumed you could do them,” he said.

The county’s action against Wilson is the latest in a series of high-profile disputes involving winery development in Sonoma County. A trio of winery appeals — one involving the Wilsons’ new Hale Winery — are headed to the Board of Supervisors this year, and supervisors are expected to formally weigh in for the first time on widespread concerns over water, traffic and noise associated with wineries that double as event centers. Criticism, prompted by the significant increase in winery applications flowing into the Board of Zoning Adjustments over the past year, has grown more vocal as tourism in Wine Country skyrockets with the rebounding economy.

County planning officials’ crackdown on Wilson marks the third of its kind in Sonoma County. The county last October took unprecedented action against Bella Vineyards, a popular Dry Creek Valley destination for wine aficionados. At the time, county planning commissioners voted 5-0 to halt all events at the winery, including tasting in its famous hillside cave. An attorney representing the winery said Bella has stopped holding industry-wide events and wine-club events. County supervisors are expected to vote on its appeal later this year.

Prior to Bella, officials recalled only one other time in county history when such strict action was taken against a winery. The use permit for Rabbit Ridge Winery — the rogue operation that moved production to Paso Robles after a 2001 battle over permitted buildings — was revoked.

The case against the Wilsons has rekindled the fiery debate over the increasing use of rural winemaking facilities as event centers. Code enforcement officials said, however, that they don’t intend to stop all events at Wilson Winery.

“They’d still be allowed to participate in industrywide events,” said Ben Neuman, a county building and safety manager, noting that the Wilsons would still be able to allow people in for popular wine industry gatherings such as barrel tasting and passport weekend that already draw substantial crowds to the area. “We just want them to stop the weddings and other large events. They’ve crossed the line into becoming an event center.”

The outcome, however, is on hold until June 24, when an administrative hearing officer will hear Wilson’s appeal.

“We’re not asking them to shut down the winery or tasting room, just to stop the unlawful events, but it’s up to the hearing officer to determine the outcome now,” Neuman said. “If they find that Wilson Winery is in violation, they’d be responsible for determining the consequences, but that could include civil penalties or something else — maybe going back to the Board of Zoning Adjustments to ask for events.”

Wilson plans to make his case later this month that holding special events at wineries “wasn’t an issue” until the past four years, he said. Wilson said he holds about 12 events a year at Wilson Winery, which he said he sees as a critical component in marketing wines directly to consumers, and for his bottom line.

Wilson said he hopes his appeal will establish a standard for special events at wineries.

“You have to decide what silent means” in the use permit, he said. “I’m going to say it’s silent on events (and) that would mean you could have as many as you want, I suppose.”

County planning officials say their stance on permits that don’t specifically ask for special events is that they are not allowed. Participation in industrywide gatherings is permitted, however.

Wick, the planning director, said Wilson is essentially contending that “I have a right to do anything I want and I don’t have to tell you what it is.” Wilson is entitled to pursue his “core business activity,” but the county will “hold him to account” for use permit violations, Wick said.

The Wilsons’ notice of violation also asserts that they violated the terms of their permit by failing to post no-parking signs and submit a mandated traffic study.

Wick disputed the idea that Wilson’s appeal would set some kind of broad standard and said the determination of what is allowed at a winery would be made on a “case by case” basis.

The debate about winery development and its effects on surrounding neighborhoods is ongoing. The county’s so-called winery working group, which convened Wednesday for its first meeting, is set to establish future rules that could have far-reaching impacts for the county’s signature industry.

The 21-member panel is hammering out issues dealing with an over-concentration of wineries on rural country roads, as well as how the county defines special events and what kind of events should be permitted going forward.

Wine industry titans including Jackson Family Wines and industry representatives including Sonoma County Vintners are participating in making recommendations, as well as a group of concerned neighbors.

Recommendations are expected to head to the Board of Supervisors in March.

Wilson also has received notice of an alleged code violation regarding alterations to a historic home at Soda Rock Winery in the Alexander Valley, a facility the Wilsons purchased in 2000. He is not appealing those violations.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves officials say the Dry Creek Valley winery has stopped holding industry-wide events and wine-club events. A previous version of this story did not accurately reflect the winery’s current practices.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com and Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

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