Sonoma County vintners address blacklash over wine industry expansion, events
Executives representing Sonoma County’s multibillion-dollar wine industry weighed in for the first time publicly Wednesday on the backlash surrounding winery development in some of the county’s prime grape-growing regions.
Complaints driven by a slate of hotly contested winery proposals over the past year — from celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s bid to build an Italian-style winery in west Santa Rosa, to Ken and Diane Wilson’s plan to develop a new winery on a 40-acre vineyard off Dry Creek Road — have grown more pronounced. Rural residents say wineries that double as event centers are drawing unruly crowds, traffic and noise to their bucolic neighborhoods, threatening public safety and their quality of life.
High-powered wine industry officials and boutique winery owners countered those claims Wednesday at the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department during a packed two-hour meeting led by Tennis Wick, the department’s director.
“We’re not the enemies,” said John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in the Russian River Valley. “There might be a few bad actors, but 99 percent of us are following the rules, doing a great job of promoting Sonoma County’s wines and keeping agriculture here. We’re running responsible businesses and giving back to the community — that’s a big deal.”
But neighborhood groups are complaining about what they call a proliferation of wineries and unauthorized events on narrow country roads. At one point during the meeting, former county Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who was seated in the audience, appeared outraged as he voiced his concerns about the impact of wineries on rural neighborhoods.
“You guys are creating problems,” Carpenter said to wine industry representatives. “Look what’s happening to our neighborhoods. … What about the environment?”
Balletto and others acknowledged heated neighborhood concerns about the county’s 439 wineries and the events they hold. He said, however, that reaching consumers by participating in wine industry events, hosting special gatherings and offering small wine release parties in tasting rooms is increasingly important for Sonoma County’s vintners.
“In order for wineries to make it today, we need that direct-to-consumer relationship,” Balletto said. “The competition with big distributors is huge, so we have to keep growing that connection with people directly. By giving them the best experience we can, we can create customers for life.”
Smaller wineries earn between 40 and 60 percent of their revenues by selling directly to consumers, according to a report issued earlier this year by Moss Adams, an accounting firm.
“If you’re a small winery, you’re really limited in getting your product to market,” said Mark Mathewson, director of hospitality and marketing for Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg. “That’s a lot to lose if you don’t get it right.”
Instead of unfairly penalizing wineries by restricting their participation in events, industry representatives called on county supervisors and planning officials to set clear definitions on events and guidelines about how they are approved. At present, the Board of Zoning Adjustments decides which winery applications are approved, and how many events they are allowed to hold.
“Both the wine industry and neighborhood groups want consistency and clarity,” said Katie Jackson, director of government relations and sustainability for Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines. “We’re not saying one size fits all, but understanding the way applications for wineries and events are considered is important for applicants and for the community.”