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Brian Arden winery

The Brian Arden Winery on Silverado Trail in Calistoga went toe to toe with the City of Calistoga over what constitutes an 'event.' The city decided Friday Night Socials are events.

The Calistoga Planning Commission on Wednesday took up the debate of what does or does not constitute an “event” at a winery.

They decided that Brian Arden Winery on Silverado Trail had violated its use permit with its First Friday Socials, which take place once a month from 5 to 7 p.m.

The socials were advertised on the winery’s website as events, and take place after the permitted tasting room hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the city said.

In an intense and almost heated hearing, winery representatives argued that the socials are not special events because they are open to the public, are not pre-paid or registered for, and are part of normal business operations.

The winery’s attorney, Jim Rose, said the extended hours, were a “minor variance” and did not have a negative impact on the community.

Brian Harlan, owner of the winery, said he doesn’t consider the Friday Socials an event, but rather a time when locals meet and gather, have wine, play games, and put together puzzles.

“We do have events. We have winemaker dinners and harvest parties, selling tickets and advertising. This is something we just do every first Friday and everybody knows about it and they come,” he said.

The city recently said otherwise and ordered the winery to cease the weekly functions.

Harlan said the monthly events are popular with locals and suggested that city planners were being “small, bureaucratic and petty over two hours once a month. I know you have a job to do but there are no winners here,” he said.

The winery was initially issued permits in 2012 and was completed a couple of years ago. In October 2017 the county received a complaint about the extent of events held at the winery, and referred the matter to the city.

Lynn Goldberg, planning director, said the city found events advertised on the winery’s website that were beyond what was allowed by the use permit, including private and corporate events for up to 75 people and First Friday Socials held after permitted hours. She said the winery was notified the events were not authorized, and asked the winery to change the website advertising the “events.” The winery complied by listing the socials on the website’s calendar, “But when you click on the calendar it brings you to an event page,” she said.

Goldberg noted that the city offered the winery a chance to apply for a use permit amendment but they declined. She added the winery did apply for permits for six special events in 2019.

By confirming that the socials and the private events are indeed events, the commission would be giving staff clear direction and the basis for guiding future code enforcement action and violations, she said.

Vice-chair Tim Wilkes addressed the issue of the extended hours, and quoted from the original project description regarding what an “event” is.

“I believe that in your project description you answered that question. It says ‘the tasting room is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. It doesn’t say from 10 to 5-ish.” He further quoted the project description as saying “Events will be held in the evening outside of normal business tasting room hours. You call these events.”

Rose argued that language was restricted to the 25- and 50-person events and those require special-use permits. Adding two hours of operation one day a month is a minor variance and not grounds for violation, he said.

Wilkes called it “a little bit of a slippery slope.”

Nick Skinner, assistant general manager at the neighboring Von Strasser Winery, argued that the ruling would create a dangerous precedent, and that hours violations are not given for those working overtime during harvest season.

Wilkes countered, “In all the discussion throughout Napa County about wineries (the question arises) are they there to make wine and sell wine or are they event centers?” he said. “No one is arguing that the process of making wine and whatever that requires and however many hours it takes — that’s not what we’re talking about here.”

Wilkes said the Brian Arden Winery should have come to the city before starting the socials and that in reviewing project after project there are two groups: Those that ask for permission, and those that ask forgiveness.

“I feel clearly you’re in the second group,” he said.

Commissioner Scott Cooper pointed out that the reason they were discussing it at all was because there was a complaint about the number of events at the winery.

In the end commissioners found the socials are a clear violation of the original agreement, and confirmed staff’s findings that the First Friday Socials are not allowed by the use permit. The winery was encouraged to come back and work with staff to amend their permit.

“The commissioners are not against what you’re doing,” Chair Paul Coates said. “They are against the process and what the history is. Be honest and open about what you might be planning.”

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You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at csweeney@weeklycalistogan.com or 942-4035.

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.