If the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors had solutions to impacts from increased winery visitation and direct-to-consumer sales on the Napa Valley, they opted not to reveal their cards in a standing-room-only hearing May 20.
While some residents called for a moratorium on approving new winery projects, supervisors and commissioners said they preferred a more diplomatic approach. County planning staff will work closely with the wine industry in the next several weeks to analyze growth in the wine industry and in wineries’ marketing plans, a key driver of the increased visitation.
Staff will then come back in the fall with recommendations on how to best handle the anticipated future growth, and how the Planning Commission can adequately address the effects of new and expanding wineries on neighbors, groundwater supplies and traffic.
Commissioner Terry Scott said the number of wineries in Napa Valley have doubled since 2000, with more than 250 approved, although not all of them have been built.
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In the past several years, wineries have sought to ramp up marketing, visitation, tours and tasting, and special events as part of an increasing reliance on a direct-to-consumer sales model. That model emphasizes bringing customers into winery tasting rooms so they can taste the wines and enjoy their experience before deciding whether to buy wine.
“We’re seeing, across the board, the numbers increase,” Commissioner Mike Basayne said. “We definitely need to be able to analyze the impacts more effectively. The conditions have changed. It’s very different than it was a year or two ago.”
Supervisor Bill Dodd was the only one to suggest possible solutions, such as potentially increasing the minimum acreage needed for a winery from 10 acres to 20 acres or by requiring wineries to grow estate grapes. Such solutions would require changing the landmark Winery Definition Ordinance, which Dodd said has served the county well since it was created in 1990 but may be in need of updating.
“People are impatient and want some solutions,” Dodd said. “It’s stood the test (of) time. A lot has changed in just two years. Really, the question is, how quickly can we do this?”
Planning Director David Morrison said he would include those proposals among the issues staff and the industry will discuss. Commissioners Bob Fiddaman and Terry Scott pitched conducting a study and creating a task force devoted to solving the problem. But the board and the commissioners ultimately favored a more informal process.
Supervisor Mark Luce said the commissioners and the board need to analyze the growth trends more in-depth before they can decide whether changes are needed.
“It’s got to be data-driven,” Luce said. “We need the right facts.”
Residents as well as members of the wine industry and representatives from environmental groups packed the supervisors’ chambers Tuesday for the hearing, and some said they saw a need to suspend all new winery applications until the issue was resolved.
Winery developer Paul Woolls is in the process of building a new winery near Mount Veeder, but has had his use permit appealed because of concerns neighbors have about the project’s groundwater usage, and how it impacts their wells and springs. Woolls said regulation of wineries has to be thoughtfully done, and shouldn’t affect existing or proposed winery projects.
“Regulation has to be reasonable,” Woolls said. “To have the rules of the game change all of a sudden is really, really unfair.”
Robert Mondavi Jr. urged everyone in the room not to draw a battle line over the problem, but to focus on working collaboratively.
“It was our forefathers in the wine business that protected this valley,” Mondavi said. “The word moratorium is going to create some big battle lines. We need to have responsibility in how we do this. Otherwise the wheels are going to come off the bus.”