Sonoma County vintners address blacklash over wine industry expansion, events

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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.”

Balletto and Jackson are participating in a 21-member working group charged with crafting proposed regulations for the unincorporated area that could set new standards for events at wineries, including how many should be allowed per year and what type — from weddings to wine pairing dinners and industry events such as barrel tasting weekend.

Wick, who is leading the effort, is set to draft final recommendations for the Board of Supervisors by March.

The advisory process, set up to inform county planners and supervisors, is launching amid an escalating debate over winery development in the county, focused especially on new and expanding sites that seek to double as event centers. The outcome, including potential tighter limits and more strict enforcement for wineries, is seen as having high stakes for the region’s signature industry.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the second gathering of the group, which also includes concerned rural residents and environmentalists.

Neighbors, who make up roughly half of the group, said one of their top concerns is the way the county polices events at wineries.

“One of the biggest issues is that there is no real enforcement of current policies,” said Fred Corson, a Dry Creek Valley homeowner who is also chairman of the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council. “It’s only complaint-driven, and on the weekends that means there is absolutely no enforcement.”

Wick addressed those concerns. “Everyone would agree it’s not being done adequately,” he told the group. “We hear you.”

Wick said in an interview, however, that county officials are cracking down on unauthorized events held at wineries, which he acknowledged is a problem especially on weekends when code enforcement officials don’t work.

“We’ve been stepping up enforcement in the last year,” Wick said. “We’ll continue to do that.”

Since last October, county planning officials have taken rare action against two popular Dry Creek Valley wineries. In October, officials halted all events at Bella Vineyards, and last month code enforcement staff called on vintner Ken Wilson to cease hosting unauthorized events at his flagship Wilson Winery.

Bella co-owner Lynn Adams said the winery has stopped holding events until the Board of Supervisors takes up its appeal, which is expected later this year.

Under a settlement agreement reached June 25, Wilson agreed to pause all special gatherings at Wilson Winery, such as weddings and wine pairing events. He is allowed to participate in industrywide events such as the popular barrel tasting weekend. He also is allowed to hold wine release parties in Wilson Winery’s tasting room between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., with up to 25 people.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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