Grapegrower challenges use of wine ordinance

Andy Beckstoffer fears wineries are finding loophole to source more out-of-county grapes
2013-08-14T18:12:00Z Grapegrower challenges use of wine ordinancePETER JENSEN Napa Valley Register
August 14, 2013 6:12 pm  • 

In a hearing in February, the Napa County Planning Commission took up the county’s 23-year-old Winery Definition Ordinance and an issue that has rankled some longtime Napa Valley grapegrowers — how county planning staff interpret the ordinance and apply it to older wineries’ expansions.

After much debate, the hearing ended with neither the commissioners nor county planning staff willing to make any changes to the ordinance and their interpretations of it. Six months later, Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards, a major Napa County grower, is undeterred.

Beckstoffer said in an interview Wednesday he continues to push wine industry groups to advocate changing the county’s interpretation of the ordinance. This interpretation allows older wineries — which pre-date the WDO’s adoption in 1990 — to apply Napa Valley grapes from their current use permits to production expansions.

Production that pre-dates the Winery Definition Ordinance is exempt from its regulations, including its signature stipulation — that wine made in Napa must be made with 75-percent Napa grapes. Napa crushed about 110,000 tons of grapes in 1989 and 1990, which could hypothetically be put toward expansions.

Beckstoffer fears that “source-shifting” allows older wineries to take that exempted production, apply it to an expansion to comply with the 75-percent rule, and then backfill with out-of-county grapes, such as those from Lodi or other wine regions.

The issue first came to light more than a year ago, when Raymond Vineyards proposed to double annual production of its Rutherford-based winery, from 750,000 gallons to 1.5 million gallons.

After a hearing before the county planning commission in June 2012, Raymond’s application was shelved. But it did set off months of debate among wine industry groups about the Winery Definition Ordinance and the 75-percent rule, which culminated in the February hearing.

Raymond’s proposal drew concerns from Beckstoffer, a neighbor of the winery. On Wednesday, Beckstoffer was critical of Jean-Charles Boisset, the president of Boisset Family Estates, which owns Raymond among other wineries and properties in France and California.

“I’m not worried about the existing winery people,” Beckstoffer said. “I’m worried about the Boissets of the world who treat this as an entitlement — people who don’t care about the valley like we do. It’s an item on their international portfolio.”

Jeffrey Redding, a land-use consultant working with Raymond on its proposal, said his clients did not have a response to Beckstoffer’s comments. Raymond is complying with the county’s current regulations and interpretations of the Winery Definition Ordinance, Redding said, and is working to respond to questions from county planning staff.

Raymond hasn’t substantially changed its plans from last year, and may be re-submitting its application to the county in the next month or so. Another hearing before the county Planning Commission would follow.

At February’s hearing, the commissioners agreed that they didn’t see a need to pursue major changes to the Winery Definition Ordinance or the county’s enforcement of the 75-percent rule.

They did say they would be more cautious and deliberate before approving a major expansion for a Napa Valley winery, and make wineries prove they’re complying with the 75-percent rule before they expand. The county has added winery’s grape sourcing and tours and tastings to its annual random audit.

Beckstoffer said that helps, but doesn’t go far enough in protecting Napa County agriculture. His issue is the county allowing source-shifting, which can justify expanding wineries’ footprints — such as when they consume more agricultural land with larger facilities. That should require an environmental impact report to examine the potential effects, Beckstoffer contends.

“If you stay there and stay in your footprint, I’ve got nothing to say,” Beckstoffer said. “None of us are willing to put up with this for crushing Lodi grapes. I understand what they’re doing. It’s a great business plan, unless you’re trying to protect the valley.”

Testimony from the February hearing disputes some of Beckstoffer’s charges. Alex Ryan, CEO and president of Duckhorn Wine Company, testified that he prized his company’s grandfathered winery rights, and wouldn’t abuse that through source-shifting.

The Napa Valley Vintners opposes Beckstoffer’s position, saying it would change the long-held rules and grandfathered wineries’ rights. The purchase and source records for pre-1990 production has been kept anonymous for 23 years.

“Any effort to renegotiate this 23-year-old deal would do nothing but claw back the vested use-permit entitlements of a couple of hundred of long-standing Napa Valley wineries,” said Rex Stults, the director of government relations for the Vintners.

Beckstoffer said he’s personally pushing for this change, and is trying to create a groundswell of political support for his position. The Sierra Club is supporting him, he said.

He said he doesn’t want to see a lawsuit filed against the Winery Definition Ordinance.

“There’s so much more going on that could have major ramifications for where we go from here,” Beckstoffer said. “I don’t want a lawsuit. I think we just need to define the rules much better.”

Stults said the February hearing provided an answer to the debate.

“It would be hard to be in that Planning Commission hearing and not think it was pretty loud and clear,” Stults said. “I think there’s probably more fruitful ways we could be spending our time at this point.”

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(15) Comments

  1. Wineandfood
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    Wineandfood - August 14, 2013 7:33 pm
    I say bring it on. The minute he file suit against a winery expansion the industry shoudl ban together, raise money and challenge the the WDO. Would LOVE to see Beckstoffer be the cause of bringing down his precious 75% rule.
  2. winebroad
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    winebroad - August 14, 2013 8:22 pm
    Good point wineandfood. This could have extreme unintended consequences. It's pretty clear this is a neighbor dispute and the rest of the industry is collateral damage. Too bad.
  3. Abouttime
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    Abouttime - August 15, 2013 6:42 am
    Beckstoffer is not interested in the WDO for its own sake. He is a self serving businessman, trying to hide under the cover of the WDO. He wants his grapes to have a higher price, thus his "cause." This is not about politics or the environment for the 75% rule. It's pure and simple about more money in Andy Becstoffer's pocket. I don't blame him for trying, I blame him for his dishonesty and hypocrisy.
  4. pettonap
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    pettonap - August 15, 2013 8:46 am
    The WDO should be preserved and strengthened. If anyone has any doubts go to the Coppola tourist attraction in Geyserville it's a blatant narsissistic monument to one man.
    Beckstoffer may be attempting to keep Napa grape prices high... But doesn't that benefit the county too?
  5. Miastrada Company
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    Miastrada Company - August 15, 2013 8:58 am
    Looking at the photo of Andy Beckstoffer in a vineyard shows that he is trying to put Napa acreage to use growing dirt instead of wine grapes.

    Of course it is early in the season in the photo and mid-day, but looking at the shadows shows that the sun usage is about 10%. Clearly there is an opportunity to plant another row where he is standing, to double the yield and thus provide a lot of Napa grapes for expansion of winery output.

    See this explained further at www.miastrada.com
  6. Old Towner
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    Old Towner - August 15, 2013 9:09 am
    How dare Andy Beckstoffer use terms like "the Boissets of the world"? How about we just ignore "the Beckstoffers of the world", who will distort the truth, attempt to rewrite history, and smear opponents to their own ends. Abouttime is 100% correct. Andy, go somewhere else to spread deceit.
  7. glenroy
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    glenroy - August 15, 2013 9:41 am
    I support Beckstoffer’s efforts...though I don’t usually support restrictive legislation but since this county became totally dependent on the wine produced locally an exception seems in order. The rule should apply across the board…there are wineries that don’t follow the rules as it is and some of them have become massive in volume benefiting by the Napa name but not using local grapes in accordance.
    This gets a little more complicated as wine consumption continues increasing, supply unable to meet demand, it may be at that point an advantage not to keep the 75% rule…but then again it may not time will tell.
  8. napablogger
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    napablogger - August 15, 2013 10:49 am
    I doubt Beckstoffer is trying to raise the price of his grapes, all Napa grapes are already sold and the market is just going to get tighter because very little new vineyard is coming on line here. Why go through all this grief just for the theoretical possibility that your grape prices would get higher when they are anyway? There is just no there there in that argument.

    I think people ought to be listening to this, not knee jerk reacting. The issue is what matters, not Beckstoffer or Boisset or anyone else.

    I'm dubious anyone is going to sue either. There is a lot of bluster going on, but this is a serious issue because it affects all of our future. We are growing like crazy and there is no plan to manage the cumulative impacts that I can see. This issue is one small part of that, but an important one.

    What business people do is look at the rules and see how they can take advantage of them. You do that enough then the rules don't mean anything.
  9. napablogger
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    napablogger - August 15, 2013 10:52 am
    I'm being a bit vague because it is such a complicated issue that it is hard to describe in a post like this, but I think there is a real issue here and that it was not really handled other than being shut down. Usually when there is a debate and a problem, even if the side in the minority loses there is some kind of adjustment, compromise, some way of improving the situation to everyone's satisfaction. I don't see that happening here and that is why it is not going away.
  10. Wineandfood
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    Wineandfood - August 15, 2013 1:38 pm
    This was discussed when the WDO was implemented and the compromises given at that time. If the discussion does not go away the 75% rule will. There will be a line of people ready to write big checks to make sure their rights are protected.
  11. Leverage
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    Leverage - August 15, 2013 2:06 pm
    I could not agree with Andy more. I have been a part of this Valley
    and the wine industry for 34 years. What we have collectively achieved by dint of luck, timing, circumstance and an awful lot of hard work by a lot of growers and vintners is to make this little 10 X 30 mile valley known worldwide and able to support (both growers and vintners) ultra premium pricing which benefits EVERYONE in this Valley. To let any old agreements/understandings get in the way is silly and short-sighted. The world continues to evolve...if you believe in the future, let go of the past.
  12. vocal-de-local
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    vocal-de-local - August 15, 2013 6:09 pm
    I wish I knew more about the WDO. Any good links?

    What this sounds like to me is big business moving into the Valley and trying to push their weight around by using grapes from other regions (Lodi) as leverage to expand winery function and expansion?

    If this is the case, we have a real problem here. Do we really want big corporations from out of the area taking control? If so, we're going to lose the value and quality of grapes. We won't be the Napa Valley anymore, not to the same degree.

    For those who want to push this issue, just be forewarned that it's going to hurt most non corporate wineries. Those who want to hold onto Napa Valley quality will be thrown into a race to the bottom, just to compete.

    I've never met Beckstoffer but I have a feeling he's right. I doubt this is about preserving grape value, but even if it is, doesn't this benefit most of the grape growers in this region?

    Be smart people...
  13. napablogger
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    napablogger - August 16, 2013 1:21 pm
    Vocal, the WDO is on line at the county web site, it is a county ordinance.
  14. vocal-de-local
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    vocal-de-local - August 18, 2013 12:00 am
    It's going to be hella boring reading thru an entire ordinance. Can't someone reduce it down to a few paragraphs!
  15. Jane Esters
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    Jane Esters - August 19, 2013 9:31 am
    Napa County has lost its way. We have sold our souls to tourism. I submit that we have gone too far already.
    Perhaps I am an extremist. I am comfortable with that label as I really have no control over the situation, I just have a very strong opinion. I believe that producing wine and having a tourist economy are not necessarily married. Could our economy not survive and even thrive if we backed off the tourism component and just concentrate on our agricultural roots? Is it some sort of social imperative that we must have a tourist economy? Sure, we've already stepped in it, but do we have to KEEP stepping in it? What happens if we stop the madness and leave it right were it is? Sure, no more $100/person restaurants will open and no more $500/hotels will show up and no more people will move here and no more buildings will sprout up. So far I see nothing wrong with any of that. Couldn't we just concentrate on making wold class wine and leave it at that?
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