Cuvaison Winery (copy)

Cuvaison Winery in Carneros successfully applied to the county for a visitor limit increase.

J.L. Sousa/Register file photo

Cuvaison and Vine Cliff wineries successfully petitioned Napa County for large visitor limit increases they say are needed to thrive amid the modern wine economy.

County Planning Commissioners on Wednesday again heard that the old business model of wineries using distributors isn’t enough. Winery officials say the new paradigm emphasizes more direct-to-consumer sales, which means attracting more visitors to a winery.

Cuvaison Estate Wines is located amid the rolling hills of the Carneros southwest of the city of Napa. The commission approved increasing the annual tasting room visitation limit from 27,300 people to 65,520 and a debut marketing program for 38 annual events with a maximum total of 4,240 guests.

“It’s really to drive an economically viable model,” Cuvaison CEO Dan Zepponi said.

Direct-to-consumer involves an emotional connection to land and true agritourism, he added.

Zepponi recited the history of Cuvaison from its beginnings in Calistoga. But he didn’t have to tell Commissioner Anne Cottrell.

“My parents were the co-founders of the Cuvaison brand back in 1969,” Cottrell said. “They haven’t had any financial connection or otherwise since the 1970s, so there’s no financial conflict of interest.”

The Schmidheiny family of Switzerland bought the winery in 1979, plus 400 acres in the Carneros where it built another winery in 2004. Cuvaison sold the Calistoga winery in 2015 and is consolidating its offices and operations in Carneros at 1221 Duhig Road.

Zepponi stressed that Cuvaison is family-owned.

“They didn’t bring me in to tune it up to sell it to a corporation,” Zepponi said. “This is going to be a family-owned business forever. This is the halo of what is Cuvaison.”

Vine Cliff Winery is located at 7400 Silverado Trail east of Oakville near Rector Canyon. The commission approved increasing the annual tasting room visitation limit from 100 people to 18,200 people. It increased the marketing program from 134 events annually with a total of 1,916 guests to 140 events with a total of 2,516 guests.

Consultant George Monteverdi talked about the challenges of the modern, direct-to-consumer wine world.

“Approval of this modification requests assures the survival again of one of our Napa Valley heritage properties, something that’s been the heart and soul of wine production in this valley for over a century,” he said.

The Planning Commission looks at winery comparison charts when ruling on visitation requests. The average annual number of visitors for both tastings and marketing among 25 by-appointment wineries with similar production is 9,326. Vine Cliff asked for 20,176.

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But Monteverdi said Vine Cliff Winery has no nearby neighbors to be bothered by noise, no groundwater issues, good infrastructure and a 100-acre property. He claimed that proposed visitation is actually about average when viewed through the lens of visitors per acre.

During the 2012 winery audit, the county found that Vine Cliff Winery had exceeded its visitation limits and issued a notice of violation in February 2015. The winery resolved the case by reducing visitation to approved levels and opening a St. Helena tasting room, a county report said.

“We don’t always see that reversion back to the permit, and I’m grateful for that,” Cottrell said. “To me, that makes it easier to approve this current request.”

Commissioners quickly approved the proposed maximum visitation increases.

“Overall, I find this as a reasonable request for a unique and historically significant winery,” Commissioner Terry Scott said.

In 1870, George Burrage and Thomas Tucker bought land for Vine Cliff Winery from the Yount Estate, the winery website says. San Franciscan John Fry, who made money in Nevada silver, bought the winery and created its initial success in the 1890s.

But phylloxera destroyed the vineyards, Fry died in 1901 and Vine Cliff became a ghost winery. The Sweeney family—the present-day owners- bought the winery in 1985 and revived it.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa