Hop Kiln Winery seeks Sonoma County’s permission to grow

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4 proposals for Westside Road

David Ramey, owner of Healdsburg’s Ramey Wine Cellars

Proposal: New winery with 60,000 cases per year, three wine tasting rooms, wine cave, 24 events per year.

Scott and Lynn Adams, owners of Bella Vineyards on West Dry Creek Road

Proposal: New winery with 2,000 cases per year, wine tasting room, 10 two-day events per year with up to 300 people.

Westside Grapes, a limited liability company that purchased Hop Kiln Winery in 2004 under the direction of David DiLoreto

Proposal: Increase production capacity from 20,800 cases per year to 30,000 cases, build new wine production facility, host 24 events per year.

Broken Hill, a limited liability company owned by Leslie Rudd, who also owns Rudd Oakville Estate in Napa County

Proposal: New 10,000-case winery with two tasting rooms, a new wine production facility and 25 events per year.

The latest application for a high-profile winery expansion on a busy rural road in Sonoma County is set to come before planning officials Thursday for a vote that could signal the broader direction the county is headed on regulation of winery development, an increasingly hot-button issue in recent years.

Hop Kiln Winery on Westside Road is seeking permission from the Board of Zoning Adjustments to add nearly 10,000 cases of wine to their annual production, for a total of 30,000 cases per year. The winery’s owners are also asking zoning officials to approve their request to build a new 15,550 square-foot wine production facility on the 79-acre site and to host up to 24 special events per year, including weddings, as well standard industrywide gatherings that feature food, wine tasting and entertainment.

The proposal, in the works for five years, comes amid an escalating debate about the potential impacts of proposed or existing wineries in the county, including those that seek to double as event centers. On Westside Road alone, vintners are seeking to build three new wineries, in addition to the expansion plans at Hop Kiln. The proposals have drawn fire from neighbors concerned about traffic, noise and strain on natural resources such as groundwater, as well as from cyclists who have said that increased traffic on the country byway, which lacks a shoulder in places, would pose a greater safety risk.

“We’ve seen an increase in complaints (countywide) over the past year and the debate has grown more heated, so it’s a major concern,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy planning director, who noted that the county does not track the number of complaints that come in, who complains or which wineries receive the most complaints.

Westside Grapes, the Seattle-based limited liability company formed in 2004 to purchase Hop Kiln Winery under the direction of David DiLoreto, was denied a similar expansion in 2012. At the time, zoning officials said they were bothered by “continued violations and lack of responsible oversight,” referring to events being held at the historic Russian River Valley winery that are not allowed under its 1976 permit.

After zoning officials cast a 5-0 preliminary vote against the winery’s request to boost production to 60,000 cases of wine per year, construct a new 11,400-square-foot wine tasting room and production facility and to hold 38 special events per year, the winery dropped its plans.

Now, Westside Grapes and DiLoreto, the winery’s chief executive officer, are hoping their scaled-back version will pass muster with planning officials, who have taken a more aggressive stance recently on winery regulation, rejecting a disputed winery proposal from celebrity chef Guy Fieri in January and halting all events at Bella Vineyards, the popular Dry Creek winery, last year.

The number and range of events planned in recent winery proposals — from weddings to wine pairing dinners — have raised the hackles of neighbors, whose objections have coalesced in a broader, countywide discussion about the expansion of tasting rooms and related tourist trappings into more rural pockets of Wine Country.

“The problem is we’re seeing more wineries in our prime wine production regions, and the importance of selling directly to consumers has led to those wineries asking for events,” said Barrett, addressing the increase in unauthorized events, and neighborhood complaints that follow.

DiLoreto cited the importance of creating a memorable experience as a way to market wines directly to consumers when applying for events three years ago.

4 proposals for Westside Road

David Ramey, owner of Healdsburg’s Ramey Wine Cellars

Proposal: New winery with 60,000 cases per year, three wine tasting rooms, wine cave, 24 events per year.

Scott and Lynn Adams, owners of Bella Vineyards on West Dry Creek Road

Proposal: New winery with 2,000 cases per year, wine tasting room, 10 two-day events per year with up to 300 people.

Westside Grapes, a limited liability company that purchased Hop Kiln Winery in 2004 under the direction of David DiLoreto

Proposal: Increase production capacity from 20,800 cases per year to 30,000 cases, build new wine production facility, host 24 events per year.

Broken Hill, a limited liability company owned by Leslie Rudd, who also owns Rudd Oakville Estate in Napa County

Proposal: New 10,000-case winery with two tasting rooms, a new wine production facility and 25 events per year.

“It is what is needed to meet our needs and challenges moving into the future,” DiLoreto told planning commissioners during the 2012 hearing.

DiLoreto did not return numerous calls seeking comment about the latest Hop Kiln plans. A winery spokeswoman said the company did not wish to be quoted in a news article.

County officials acknowledged that Hop Kiln is violating county rules. Somewhere around 2006, planning staff said the winery demolished two historic structures at the 110-year-old landmark, and since the 2012 vote, Hop Kiln has continued to hold events that are not allowed under its current permit. An upcoming wine celebration party is advertised as “Winery Tours — Tasting — Music — Fun,” while another is called Passport Weekend and another Sonoma Wine Country Weekend.

County staff said they have little recourse because most events occur on nights and weekends when county code enforcement officers don’t work.

As part of the winery’s larger plans, Hop Kiln is now seeking authorization for such events.

Representatives for neighborhood groups in Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys said they plan to protest Hop Kiln’s plans Thursday. They’ve called out concerns about losing their rural neighborhood character, increased traffic and potential drunk driving risks for bicyclists and other motorists.

“This wouldn’t be a problem if it were one or two events, but it’s hundreds of events per year and most of them are going on without a permit,” said Marc Bommersbach, president of the Westside Association to Save Agriculture, a neighborhood group formed in the 1980s to prevent gravel mining along the Russian River. “We are looking at the cumulative impacts of these events, and it’s commercializing of our rural agricultural area.”

Three other wineries are in the pipeline for development on Westside Road.

David Ramey, of Healdsburg’s Ramey Wine Cellars, is seeking to build a new 60,000-case winery with three new tasting rooms, a wine cave and to host 24 events per year. Bella owners Scott and Lynn Adams are applying for a new winery called Ten Acre, with 2,000 cases per year, a wine tasting room and 10 two-day events per year with up to 300 guests per event. Leslie Rudd, who owns Rudd Oakville Estate and Oakville Grocery Co. in Napa, is seeking approval for another new winery with 10,000 cases per year, two tasting rooms and 25 annual events.

The trio of projects are still in planning phases. If approved, including Hop Kiln, permitted events would total about 150 per year between the 25 wineries situated on Westside Road — a mostly two-lane road that winds through lower Russian River communities and connects with popular Dry Creek Valley wine destinations.

County planning staff are recommending approval of Hop Kiln’s new plans with 79 conditions, including requirements to analyze noise impacts and water supply. Staff have found that the project will not create a significant increase in vehicle trips along Westside Road. Traffic study estimates found that the expansion would generate about 75 additional vehicle trips per day.

Neighbors have criticized those figures, arguing that estimates don’t take into account people visiting other wineries on the road or traffic from people attending unauthorized events.

Wine industry groups are also paying close attention. They say the future of their business model is at stake.

“We’ve got to figure this out,” said John Azevedo, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which represents 3,000 farmers and agricultural operations. “The question is what is agricultural use, and what is a promotional event — right now everything is so unclear about what’s allowed and what isn’t.”

Azevedo, a Healdsburg grapegrower who also oversees grower relations for Jackson Family Wines, is one of 20 newly-appointed members on a new county steering committee charged with drafting clear definitions of winery events. County planning officials said the group will come up with guidelines and potentially, new regulations.

Recommendations, which would be subject to approval by county planning officials and supervisors in roughly two years, could include banning weddings, prohibiting food served on site or restricting amplified noise.

“Right now the permitting process is so expensive and time-consuming, so we could use some guidance so we know what to expect,” Azevedo said. “But at the same time, applications should be considered on a site-by-site basis because each location is so different.”

Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes Hop Kiln Winery and the three newly proposed wineries, said he could not speak specifically about any pending application, but he said he favors restrictions if winery events negatively impact neighbors or the environment.

“Some would say the wine industry is out of control, but every day, I see wineries and vineyards operating in a way that is productive and good for our economy,” Gore said. “We need to look at each project individually, in the context of agricultural promotion as well as rural character.”

Gore said he supports new policies regarding events.

“In a way, this is a problem of our success,” he said. “If wineries are operating outside what they’re allowed to do, we need to have mechanisms in place to fix that. But let’s not fix what’s not broken.”

A public hearing for Hop Kiln’s application is set for 1 p.m. Thursday at 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa.

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

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