Disputes over Napa County winery and tourism growth don’t necessarily end after the county Board of Supervisors approves a project.
A state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) license needed to sell wine and hold wine tastings is the new flashpoint for Relic Wine Cellars. The county approved Relic in 2010 and the winery is open for business at 2400 Soda Canyon Road north of Napa.
Eleven people filed protests with the ABC over Relic’s license. They’ve expressed concerns about winery tourism noise in a remote area and the potential that winery visitors could end up in auto accidents and cause fires along narrow, dead-end Soda Canyon Road.
ABC administrative hearings took place Tuesday through Thursday in the Napa City Council chamber before Administrative Law Judge David Sakamoto.
Proceedings went along like a typical court session. Witnesses testified and underwent cross-examinations, with occasional cries of “objection!” from opposing attorneys.
Sakamoto is to announce his decision within 30 days. Meanwhile, Relic Wine Cellars can continue to conduct tastings under an interim ABC license.
During a break in the proceedings, Relic co-owner Schatzi Throckmorton reflected on the license challenge by protesters that for the most part are the winery’s neighbors on Soda Canyon Road.
“I think there’s a lot of emotion involved,” she said. “I hope they see their fears won’t come to reality.”
The 11 protesters described their concerns as they were called up to the witness stand and sworn in. Lynne Hallett, who lives next door to Relic, said her ability to have “quiet enjoyment” of her property is threatened by noise from winery tourists.
“We bought our home here in 1999 because of the location,” she said. “It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s rural countryside.”
Several people expressed concern that an auto accident on the narrow road with a blind curve could start a fire in the brushy canyon. Accidents could also block the sole escape route for residents, they said. Soda Canyon Road extends about seven miles from Silverado Trail and Relic is located about three miles before the dead-end.
David Heitzman lives in Circle Oaks about four miles away from Relic as the crow flies. He said a fire starting along Soda Canyon Road could spread and sweep over the ridge into his rural neighborhood.
“On that road, there’s a little bit of alcohol and tasting, and it’s not a good mix,” he said.
Anthony Arger of Soda Canyon said that Relic could make wine at its Soda Canyon winery and hold wine tastings at another, more appropriate location.
Attorney Kristen Techel spoke on behalf of Relic. She called the case by the protesters a rehash of issues that came before the county in Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings.
Napa County approved Relic Wine Cellars, and has more knowledge than the ABC about local roads, fire conditions and traffic, she said.
Nor is Soda Canyon Road zoned as a residential area, Techel said. It has agricultural watershed zoning and “agriculture” as defined by Napa County includes making and selling wine, she said.
The protesters are concerned about the commercialization of Soda Canyon Road and Napa County in general, Techel said. But she saw these as issues for Napa County to tackle, not the ABC.
Arger disagreed during closing arguments. He and Yeoryios Apallas represented the protesters.
If the ABC cannot overrule a county decision, then it would be a watchdog without teeth, Arger said. He said the ABC inadequately investigated the protesters’ claims. He urged the judge to correct the situation.
Then Sakamoto took the matter under consideration. He will announce in coming days a proposed decision that will go to the ABC director for either adoption or rejection.
The ABC director’s decision on the protest can be appealed to the ABC Appeals Board. That decision can be appealed to the District Court of Appeals and ultimately to the California Supreme Court.
The Napa County Planning Commission approved Relic Wine Cellars in August 2010. David Hallett—Lynne Hallett’s husband—and Daniel McFadden appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors.
In December 2010, the county announced that Relic and the appellants had reached a settlement calling for revised approval conditions that did such things as lower visitation limits. The Board of Supervisors approved Relic 5-0 with annual limits of 20,000 gallons for wine production and 4,500 for visitors.
But some in Soda Canyon and nearby rural areas didn’t like the outcome. They are looking to the ABC to do what the Board of Supervisors wouldn’t do in 2010—stop Relic from holding wine tastings and bringing tourists to Soda Canyon.