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City planners have thrown their weight behind relaxing the rules on local grape content at wineries in industrial areas, and on Tuesday, the Napa City Council did the same.

The council’s 4-1 vote, with Scott Sedgley dissenting, exempts wineries in industrially zoned lands from the city’s version of the requirement that wines made in the valley contain at least 75 percent Napa County-grown grapes.

The change aligns city grape sourcing rules with the county’s, which supporters say will lessen winemakers’ confusion about the law, and with it their temptation to set up shop in the unincorporated county instead.

The change to the city’s winery ordinance had won the Planning Commission’s go-ahead last month. Winemaking elsewhere within city limits would remain subject to the city’s 75-percent rule, passed in 2003 and modeled on the county Winery Definition Ordinance that has governed Napa Valley winemaking for a quarter century.

Napa had been the only jurisdiction to apply its local-grape minimum to wineries on all types of land. Neighboring American Canyon has no requirement for Napa Valley-grown fruit, while St. Helena and Calistoga already waive their 75-percent requirement on industrially zoned lots.

Property owners at the Napa Valley Commons industrial park originally proposed relaxing the city rule. They argued that industrial zones outside city limits – particularly south of the Commons near Napa County Airport – have become an inviting target to wine operations that might otherwise set up shop at the Commons.

“On multiple occasions, we’ve lost potential tenants who went down to (near) the airport, because they didn’t want to have to hassle with the city ordinance, or worry about problems with their lenders,” said Ned Pike, treasurer of the Commons’ board of directors.

Among wine industry groups, only the Napa Valley Grapegrowers has officially opposed relaxing the city ordinance. On Tuesday, Grapegrowers president Steve Moulds again argued a pullback on the 75-percent local grape standard even outside the county Ag Preserve – the area with the strictest land-use rules – could set a precedent for more non-local fruit to be crushed within the county.

St. Helena grapegrower Larry Bettinelli was even more forceful about not giving an inch on grape content rules even within cities. Passing out copies of a magazine article to council members, he attacked its author’s claim that 80 percent of grapes in Napa-labeled wines originate in Sacramento County – but called even rumors of large-scale non-local fruit use “a reflection of what could happen to the Napa reputation in 10, 15, 25 years.”

“We have been degrading our name for a while now, and I’m very, very, very concerned about where the Napa name will be in the coming years,” said Bettinelli, whose family has lived in the Napa Valley since the 1840s. “As we degrade our name, the question comes up: Who are you really, Napa?”

The only council member to vote against the rule change, Scott Sedgley made his opinion known by holding a wine bottle that did not bear the Napa name in front – but did carry a gold-leaf N-V logo and a “vinted and bottled in Napa” back label he said show the motivation for winemakers to grab hold of even the most tenuous Napa connection.

“We can make the argument that with more out-of-county fruit, it does have an effect on the price of Napa fruit,” he said, seeking at least a delay in relaxing the grape content law.

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Even with such a relaxation, however, federal and state rules on wine labeling – especially what place names appear at the front of a bottle as the source of grapes—would continue to protect the value of the Napa name on bottles, according to Rob Anglin, an attorney advising Napa Valley wine companies.

Anglin, who is not representing Napa Valley Commons, also cautioned officials not to put the 75 percent rule – both the county and city versions – at risk of a legal challenge for meddling with Congressional power to regulate trade, saying the restriction’s goal of protecting farmland does not apply to lands already devoted to industry.

“It’s because of ag protection that we have a defense, that we can have this restriction,” he said.

Peter Mott, one of the council members to support the change, dismissed worries that the move would trigger another all-out battle over the Napa name like the one waged by Bronco Wine Co., the Stanislaus County company blocked by the state Supreme Court in 2004 from using Napa- and Rutherford-themed names for its Central Valley-based products.

“The vast majority of wineries at Napa Valley Commons are small wineries in small buildings,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing Bronco Wine moving in next to the Meritage.”

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Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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