When I was involved with the 2014-2015 grand jury, we studied, at some depth, the issues around the approval of new wineries and regulation of existing wineries within Napa County. It is a complex and multilayered subject, as has become ever more clear as it has been examined by an Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee and has been discussed extensively in your news columns and Letters to the Editor. The findings and recommendations of the grand jury have been published and I cannot legally comment on them. They speak for themselves and for the jurors who worked diligently on them.
I can, however, speak to a political decision that is looming for the Board of Supervisors. The APAC recommendations, as well as appeals from pending and future Planning Commission decisions, will all come to the desks of the Napa County supervisors for their resolution and explanation to the supervisors’ constituents. This is as it should be. Supervisors are elected to be the final arbiters of political questions and public policy in the county. Their laps are where the buck stops. And this is as fraught an issue as they are likely to be faced with for some time. This will be where they earn their keep and will have something to do with their own political futures.
There are all manner of detailed and nuanced proposals and recommendations coming from APAC and other sources. Sifting through them and balancing them will be a difficult task and the outcome will be bound to please some and enrage others. I would not want that job and am loath to tell the supervisors how they should come out. Instead, I would like to offer an observation that might help guide them to a felicitous outcome.
One overarching question that has not been greatly discussed is, “Does Napa County really need any more wineries?” There is an argument afoot about what constitutes “agriculture.” Nobody doubts that growing grapes is agriculture. Making wine and marketing it may or may not be agriculture in some people's minds, but growing grapes clearly is agriculture. Wine grapes taste good, but are only commercially valuable if made into wine, so wineries somewhere are a necessity for agriculture to flourish. But how many wineries are necessary?
Almost certainly there is more than enough winemaking capacity already installed and functioning to convert all of Napa County’s grapes into wine. The next new winery built would probably make good wine. There is an ample pool of talent that knows how to do this stuff. But, if that incremental winery is not built, surely all of Napa’s grapes would still end up finding a home in bottles of Napa Valley wines.
And the reputation of Napa Valley wine would not be diminished by the absence of yet another winery in the county. The incremental winery is not necessary to “support” Napa agriculture. Indeed, the incremental winery would feed off of Napa agriculture. And also feed off the pre-existing reputation of Napa Valley wine. Napa agriculture would not be any the worse for the absence of another new winery. Nor would the reputation of Napa Valley wine or the value of Napa Valley grapes suffer.
Properly viewed, the public policy question for the supervisors is whether the establishment of another winery in Napa Valley serves some desirable public purpose. Does it do something beneficial for the people of Napa County (i.e., for the voters who are the supervisors’ constituents)? Or is the benefit primarily to the owners, operators and investors of the new winery? That question does not seem to be part of the approval process in the Planning Commission’s review of an application for a new winery. Nor does it stand out in the recommendations of the APAC. It would seem reasonable for the Planning Commission process to ask the applicant for a new winery use permit to articulate something like, “What’s in it for Napa County and its residents if we approve your winery?”
Of course, building and operating a winery is not per se contrary to the public interest. Winemaking is a legal, honorable business. But it is not a matter of right that outweighs other considerations of ancillary effects that it would have on the county and its residents. A balanced winery application approval process could, and should, reasonably weigh those effects. And the burden of proof should be on the applicant to show “What’s in it for Napa County and its residents?”
Being a public policy question of widespread interest and debate within the county, it is certainly appropriate for the supervisors to address how the public benefits and burdens are to be weighed in the consideration of new winery applications. It is also an implicit and unavoidable matter that underlies whatever final decision comes from the Board of Supervisors. And how they answer it will have a great deal to do with how they are judged politically over time.
Interested residents can help the supervisors deal with the issue by making their own views known to their supervisors. Democracy works best with voter involvement. If you care, write your supervisor a letter or an email. It will help them find the right answer to “What’s in it for Napa County?”