A well-known Dry Creek Valley winery once singled out by Sonoma County for regularly holding unpermitted events has emerged more than three years later a model of compromise and neighborly good will, winning praise and unanimous approval of a newly modified permit from county supervisors Tuesday.
Bella Vineyards can now resume holding public events at its hillside winery off West Dry Creek Road, within specified limits, and has been cleared to make certain improvements to its facilities. It has also secured what appeared to be widespread community support and clear operational guidelines most agree were lacking under its original permit.
Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore described it as a turnaround made possible by the owners’ decision to work with, instead of against, neighbors and county planners. He said it was an example of what could be accomplished even amid tensions countywide over the proliferation of winery events and related land-use issues.
“This is exactly like the epitome of local outreach,” said Gore, whose 4th District includes the winery-dense Dry Creek Valley.
Winery owner Lynn Adams and her land-use attorney, Bill Carle, said Bella’s past problems were largely a function of ambiguity in the original permit that they believed allowed the kinds of events they had been hosting until they were ordered to stop.
Adams, who started the 100-acre family-owned vineyard and winery with her husband, Scott, in the late 1990s, said after the meeting that Gore’s plaudits were at least as meaningful as the go-ahead from the board, given dark days just a few years ago when their participation in events was curbed by the county starting in 2014. Adams said her family had a strong legal defense and could have fought county actions.
But brokering peace with the community and the county is a superior outcome, she said.
“It’s been kind of an amazing journey for us,” she said.
Officials throughout the three-hour hearing acknowledged that many county wineries operate under old permits that lack clear definitions and thresholds for winery events. They referred as well to the strong backlash over the proliferation of wineries and their impact on rural communities and roadways.
The county also is working on a new policy governing winery events that was to return to the board last fall, though now it won’t come to fruition until next year.
Bella — authorized under a 1999 use permit to make 15,000 cases of wine a year, hold tastings and conduct retail sales on its 100-acre property — came under scrutiny around 2012, when it was notified of long-standing permit infringements that included harvest parties, late-night dinners, and large events in its 6,700-square-foot wine cave, as well as irregularities around permits for the cave construction itself, which the owners dispute.
Neighbors had concerns about noise, but particularly about traffic on the narrow, crumbling lane leading out to Bella. County officials said at the time they had received hundreds of complaints.
The county in 2014 considered revoking the company’s permit, but instead ordered a halt to promotional events and any use of the hillside cave beyond storage, though later modifications permitted wine tasting there.
Lynn and Scott Adams initially appealed the decision but ultimately decided to pursue a modified permit based on hours of one-to-one dialog with neighbors, discussion with county staff, new environmental studies, and a more collaborative effort that included winning approval from the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council. Lynn Adams called that vote of support, in August 2016 “an amazing night.”