The success of the Napa Valley wine industry can be traced, in large part, to the cohesion of its parts.
From its modest beginning, the industry has understood that collaboration has been a greater tool than competition.
The farming industry, the winemakers and vintners have historically agreed on not just what’s best for Napa Valley wine but also on the future of the industry. Common ground is found on everything from land-use policy to the manner in which the industry is marketed.
In the past six months, however, debate has arisen over the enforcement of the county’s much-celebrated Winery Definition Ordinance.
A pair of large-scale winery expansion proposals in 2012 awoke county planners to the need to answer a fundamental question: Does Napa Valley have enough grapes to produce a lot more wine?
The 23-year-old Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) states that all new production of wine within the county needs to be made with at least 75 percent Napa Valley grapes. Expansion proposals last year by Reata Winery and Raymond Vineyards combined to ask for more than 4 million gallons of additional wine to be permitted, calling into question where the Napa Valley grapes would come from to meet that ordinance requirement.
The proposals prompted county planners in July to ask industry stakeholders to examine what, if anything, needed to be adjusted in the ordinance. An
eight-member wine industry panel was formed to discuss the ordinance’s modern implementation.
After meetings throughout the past six months, it is evident consensus within that group was not reached. Letters sent to County Director of Planning Hillary Gitelman indicate that positions on how the winery ordinance should be enforced vary among those stakeholders.
Disagreement exists in defining the rights of grandfathered wineries. More than 200 Napa Valley wineries existed when the ordinance was adopted in 1990. The production of wine quantities permitted before 1990 at those wineries is exempt from the 75-percent rule. Whatever wine was permitted before 1990 can still be produced today with no restriction on its Napa Valley grape content.
Any wine permitted after 1990 has had to meet the 75-percent requirement.
Over the past 23 years, many believe this has led grandfathered wineries to take Napa Valley grapes out of that exempted pre-1990 wine production in order to use those grapes for newly permitted wine production that must adhere to the 75-percent standard.
This has no impact on premium Napa Valley wine, because legislation states that in order to have “Napa Valley” on a wine label, the wine must be made with 85 percent Napa Valley grapes. Not all wine produced in Napa carries the Napa name on the bottle.
This right or ability to take Napa Valley grapes out of grandfathered wine in order to use them to produce wine permitted after 1990 is where industry leaders disagree.
The Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Napa County Farm Bureau say they believe any further expansion of wine production should include new Napa Valley grapes, not grapes taken out of grandfathered wine. The Grapegrowers organization says this would better support the local economy.
The Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Winegrowers Association say they believe grandfathered wineries should have no restrictions on the wine permitted by the county before 1990, arguing that the Winery Definition Ordinance would never have existed without that fundamental right for those 200-plus wineries.
Stripping those grandfathered wineries of the freedom to do whatever they want with their pre-WDO-permitted production could lead to wine business leaving the county, according to the Vintners. More importantly, changes to the interpretation of the Winery Definition Ordinance could result in legal challenges, the association said in a letter to the county.
Gitelman hopes the parties can return to the table for further discussion before the issue comes before the County Planning Commission in February. The Raymond expansion application, which was postponed in July, is back before the county and Gitelman hopes the Vintners, Grapegrowers, Farm Bureau and Winegrowers can reach an accord on the ordinance before that application goes before the planning board.
County Supervisor Diane Dillon, Gitelman said, is working to get the groups talking again.
Consensus may be the only solution that doesn’t damage the industry.
Should either side press its position through legal recourse, it may jeopardize the whole of the ordinance, which could have catastrophic consequences.
Without legislation dictating what a winery can and — more importantly — cannot be within agriculturally preserved Napa County, some growth controls would be negated.
The Winery Definition Ordinance ensures the purity of agricultural purpose for that land — for instance, preventing more entertainment or wedding venues from popping up in the valley. Without a winery ordinance, Napa could quickly become the “adult Disneyland” so many fear it already aspires to be.
That is not in the best interest of the industry’s stakeholders or of Napa County.
Common ground and collaboration built Napa into a world power in the wine industry, and that team approach is equally important to the maintenance of that stature.
We hope these groups can work through this issue just as they have countless others over the past half-century. Harmony within the local wine industry has been a hallmark of its success.