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An unauthorized cave portal for a Soda Canyon underground winery will have to go, ending chances for guests to step onto an adjacent outdoor tasting area with an impressive Napa Valley view.

The Caves at Soda Canyon built these features that are outside the scope of the project’s use permit, along with two unauthorized ridgetop tasting areas. The panoramic views from the three tasting areas are featured on the winery’s website.

The Napa County Planning Commission on Wednesday declined to grant after-the-fact approvals, with Commissioner Heather Phillips saying she didn’t see the choice facing the commission as being between punishment and forgiveness.

“I feel that living within your existing use permit isn’t punitive,” Phillips said.

The commission by a 4-1 vote said this fourth cave portal must be converted to the authorized ventilation shaft. The winery under county rules can apply after a year for approval to reinstall a door.

A 700-square-foot concrete patio outside the door that served as a tasting area can remain, though it cannot be used. That way, should the winery ever have a fourth cave portal approved, it wouldn’t have to repour the pad.

“We need to go forward without causing significant financial damage here,” Commissioner Terry Scott said.

Phillips cast the “no” vote because she didn’t think the commission’s decision went far enough. She also wanted the concrete area removed as it is outside the scope of the original use permit.

The Caves at Soda Canyon, also called Napa Custom Crush Winery, is located at 2275 Soda Canyon Road. The underground winery is inside a ridgetop that overlooks the Napa Valley to one side and Soda Canyon to the other.

A county report in March described how the winery turned an authorized cave ventilation shaft into a fourth portal with an outdoor tasting area and created two ridgetop tasting areas. None of these features are in the winery use permit.

“It is very common, in fact almost given, that winery projects will be modified to some degree during the construction process,” the report said.

County planning staff recommended that the commission on April 1 approve the additional features, calling the modifications “minor.” But the commission balked at doing so – it ended up making no decision—and the latest staff report recommended removing the portal and tasting areas.

Winery founder Ryan Waugh volunteered to remove the two ridgetop tasting areas, but asked to keep the fourth cave door and adjacent tasting area. During Wednesday’s hearing, he pointed out the contrast between the two staff reports and asked what had changed in 30 days.

“I believe what’s happened between April and now is more a function of politics than it is of reality,” Waugh told commissioners.

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Over the past year, a group of individuals has banded together to speak out against winery permits, Waugh said. He called them a “small minority” of the county with the time to make their views known.

Various individuals appeared at the meeting to oppose an after-the-fact approval for the cave portal. The Napa County Farm Bureau also voiced its objections.

“This denial will send a clear message that, in Napa County, it will no longer be ‘easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,’ as it has sometimes appeared,” Farm Bureau President Norma Tofanelli said.

Randall Wulff of Lobo Wines, one of The Caves at Soda Canyon vintners, wrote that the fourth portal and tasting areas don’t increase wine production or visitor numbers.

“It has only to do where visitors stand when they visit and only involves a total of less than 1,000 square feet!” Wulff wrote.

Whether The Caves at Soda Canyon issue is settled remains to be seen. The applicant has the option of appealing the Planning Commission decision to the county Board of Supervisors.

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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

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