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Poule au Pot, a one-pot dish in two courses.

Wine Industry
Napa County hits B Cellars with code notice over food service

Napa County says Oakville-based B Cellars winery appears to overemphasize food service in violation of county laws for wineries in unincorporated areas, with the winery disagreeing.

The county allows food-and-wine pairings at wineries, but requires that food service be incidental to wine tasting. Wineries are to be primarily agricultural processing facilities, according to county policies.

On Jan. 31, the county issued what it calls an “apparent code violation” notice to B Cellars saying meal service there is such that the winery functions as a café or restaurant. Also, the winery’s marketing efforts emphasize food too much.

“Your web page describes ‘an enhanced Napa culinary experience’ that does not subordinate the food to the wine tasting experience, but highlights it as a distinct reason to visit your facility,” the notice said.

The notice encourages voluntary compliance before the county takes further enforcement action.

B Cellars co-owner Duffy Keys said Monday he only just learned of the apparent code violation notification. The winery hadn’t received the notice in the mail yet.

“We take our operational compliance seriously here,” Keys said. “I like to think we work hard to run our business inside the framework of county code, especially the nuances of it … My feeling is that we are operating inside those ground rules. What we need to do is work with the compliance team at Napa County and try to reach common ground on how things get described.”

Napa County cited customer comments in the winery’s website advertising saying the food is excellent and the chef-prepared tasting menu is perfect. Another section refers to an epicurean adventure led by chef Derick Kuntz, not by a winemaker.

“The cumulative effect of these web pages and advertising is such that the food being served is neither incidental nor subordinate to wine,” the notice stated. “There are repeated references to food and wine pairings, which indicate that the food is, at a minimum, equal to the wine being served.”

In addition, county code enforcement officials have heard a report that B Cellars offered to rent the winery for an anniversary celebration. Anniversary parties are prohibited because they are not subordinate to wine-related content, the notice stated.

“I don’t know of a specific instance,” Keys said. “I’m reading this today (Monday). Anything that is specified here, we’ll look into.”

Napa County is giving B Cellars until Feb. 11 to describe how it believes it is complying with county code and its use permit. The county also told the winery to submit all log books detailing visitors for tastings and marketing events in 2017 and 2018.

Keys and Jim Borsack founded B Cellars in 2003. They operated out of the Silver Rose Inn resort in Calistoga, then in 2013 won county Planning Commission approvals needed to move to today’s site at 701 Oakville Cross Road in the heart of Napa Valley.

On Dec. 20, 2017, B Cellars obtained Planning Commission approval to increase annual tasting and marketing visitation from 13,860 guests to 25,635 guests.

“I think a distinguishing characteristic for us is that we are providing visitors with a curated wine-and-food experience,” Keys told the commission. “These are high-touch, personalized visits.”

This hearing included much praise for B Cellars, but also some wrestling over the question of when hospitality uses at wineries begin to overshadow agriculture. Commissioner Joelle Gallagher voted against the request, which passed 3-1.

“I really think the visitation and marketing isn’t clearly incidental and subordinate to the production of wine,” she said.

B Cellars neighbor and vintner Paul Woolls expressed concerns about the proposed visitation increase during that meeting’s public comment period, though he said it pained him to do so. B Cellars on its website has seemed like a restaurant masquerading as a winery, he said.

This is the third high-profile winery code notice that Napa County has issued in little more than a month. Last Dec. 26, it issued an apparent notice of violation to The Prisoner alleging that winery improperly sold art objects and had food service similar to that at a restaurant.

On Jan. 10, Napa County issued a code violation letter to DDYM Inc. – a company associated with the Del Dottos of Del Dotto wineries fame – because of a mudslide from a hillside vineyard onto Yount Mill Road.

Supporters of Napa Valley’s historic Bale Grist Mill hope to rebuild 36-foot wheel

ST. HELENA — At 173 years old, the Bale Grist Mill seems destined for immortality, but its 36-foot water wheel is not so fortunate.

Last rebuilt in 1980, the roughly 14-ton redwood wheel is showing the effects of moisture and age, and the mill’s supporters are trying to raise as much as $250,000 to rebuild it.

Water takes an inevitable toll on mill wheels, which typically last only 12 to 14 years in a full-time working mill, said millwright Rob Grassi, who works for the Napa County Regional Parks & Open Space District.

The Bale Grist Mill’s wheel at least gets a chance to dry out during the week, but “it’s starting to get to that age,” Grassi said.

The wheel’s 32 spoke-like arms started to show wear about three years ago, and more than half of them were replaced. The rest of the arms have already been bought and just need to be installed.

Last week, Grassi was sawing boards to patch up the buckets at the outer ends of the wheel that hold water. Eventually the shrouds surrounding the buckets and the gears – as well as the buckets themselves – will have to be replaced too.

The plan is to repair as much of the wheel as possible in piecemeal fashion so that it can remain in operation on the weekends. That’s the same way a working mill would have been maintained in the pioneer days, Grassi said.

The mill will have to be taken out of operation eventually for more extensive repairs, although hopefully not for long, said Kathy Carrick, president of the nonprofit Napa Valley State Parks Association.

The California State Parks Foundation will be offering grants in 2020 that could cover some of the cost, Carrick said.

Without proper maintenance, “things start to fall apart, then they get dangerous, and then they get shut down,” Grassi said. The Bale Grist Mill isn’t anywhere near that stage yet, which is all the more reason to take care of it now, he said.

Grassi was raised on the East Coast, where old mills are much more common. He said it would be a mistake to take for granted the Bale Grist Mill, which is one of only two water-driven mills remaining west of the Mississippi River.

“There used to be mills in Yountville, in Calistoga, and up in Chiles Valley,” Grassi said. “All those are gone. This is the only one that’s survived, which makes it special. … It’s a treasure to have here, so we need to be good stewards and protect it for future generations.”

To make a tax-deductible donation, go to

Jesse Duarte, Star 

The 36-foot-tall water wheel at the Bale Grist Mill is one of the Napa Valley's most cherished landmarks. But moisture is taking its toll on the wheel, which was last rebuilt in 1980.

law enforcement
Major crime in American Canyon drops to a 7-year low

American Canyon reported having 533 violent crimes and property crimes in 2018, the lowest total in seven years, according to a new Police Department report.

That figure combines homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. The total was 584 in 2017 and 773 in 2012.

City Councilmember David Oro mentioned this decline during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. He wanted residents to keep the overall crime picture in perspective, despite some troubling trends and a high-profile June case when dozens of residents had car windows shot out by BB gun vandals.

“The sky is not falling,” said Oro, whose home surveillance video helped break the BB-gun case and resulted in an arrest. “Crime is not raining down on this city.”

Police Chief Oscar Ortiz agreed.

“American Canyon is still a great town and a safe town,” Ortiz said. “It’s not a big-city type of town at all. It’s a great town to raise a family in.”

American Canyon pays Napa County $6.2 million annually for a division of the Sheriff’s Office to function as the city’s police department, as well as provides an additional $683,000 in support. The City Council on Tuesday heard the annual Police Department report.

The city’s homicide number remained steady in 2018 at zero. Auto thefts fell from 57 in 2017 to 41. Robberies fell from 14 to 13, the lowest total in seven years. Rapes rose from five to eight. Larceny cases rose from 279 to 315.

Two statistics that prompted concern were a rise in firearms seizures from 11 to 20 and a rise in pursuits from 14 to 23. Ortiz said more people have guns and more people are running from police.

City Councilmember Mark Joseph said those are the type of activities seen in bigger cities. He asked what police, the City Council and community can do.

Ortiz pointed to reforms in California law. California is letting more people out of prison and not all of them decide to become law-abiding citizens, he said.

“That’s one theory of why we’re seeing some of the trends we’re seeing that are very concerning in a town like this,” Ortiz said.

Police handed out 774 traffic citations on local roads in 2018, compared to 522 in 2017. They handed out 662 citations on Highway 29, compared to 427 in 2017.

“That’s not because they got meaner all of a sudden,” Ortiz said. “They still hand out a lot of warnings.”

Other officers are helping the traffic division out, he said. Community complaints help police tailor enforcement.

Some Highway 29 traffic takes to local streets as an alternative route to avoid rush-hour congestion. Ortiz said some of these drivers don’t respect stop signs in the residential neighborhoods. Stop signs violations rose from 201 in 2017 to 397.

Joseph focused on the number of traffic citations. That’s a way of telling residents that the police hear their concerns about traffic violations and are doing what residents want.

A resident during public comments asked why speeding violations fell from 174 in 2017 to 88. Some drivers travel 50 mph to 60 mph on Wetlands Edge Road, he said. The road passes through a residential neighborhood.

Ortiz said police focused on other types of traffic violations based on community input. Also, congestion is slowing traffic down. He urged people to report areas with speeding problems and to give the time of day the problems exist.

Police handed out 44 open container cannabis traffic citations in 2018, compared to three in 2017. Ortiz said there is perception that cannabis use is harmless to driving.

“We want to make sure the message is out there that we don’t want anybody driving impaired under any intoxication, no matter what the intoxicant is,” he said.

Ortiz said the effect of the national opiate epidemic in American Canyon is minimal. The drug seen locally is methamphetamine.

Vice Mayor Mariam Aboudamous said residents hear stories about people being robbed in local shopping center parking lots.

“What kind of things should we be looking for to keep us safe when we’re grocery shopping at night, for example, and what kind of things should we be calling you about?” she asked Ortiz.

Ortiz said to report anything suspicious. Police respect the Constitution and aren’t going to respond with a SWAT squad. If the situation is innocent, police will meet a nice person and be on their way, he said.

Police made 509 arrests in 2018. Of those arrested, 22 percent lived in American Canyon, 33 percent in neighboring Vallejo, 8 percent in Napa, 26 percent in other cities and 11 percent were transient, the police report stated.

“It’s not a big city type of town at all. It’s a great town to raise a family in.” Oscar Ortiz, police chief

Appellate court sides with St. Helena in case involving high-density housing

An appellate court has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging St. Helena’s approval of Joe McGrath’s 8-unit housing project on McCorkle Avenue.

In a ruling issued Dec. 18, California’s 1st Appellate District upheld a Napa County Superior Court ruling rejecting neighbors’ claims that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by treating the project at 632 McCorkle Ave. as a simple design review and not subjecting it to more rigorous environmental review standards.

The three-judge panel ruled that the Planning Commission and City Council were justified in declaring the project exempt from CEQA because it only required design review, not a use permit, and would have qualified for a CEQA exemption anyway as an infill housing project.

To comply with state housing policies, the city had amended its zoning ordinance in 2016 to make multi-family dwellings a “by right” use in the High Density Residential zoning district. Those projects no longer require use permits and the more stringent CEQA review standards that go along with use permit applications.

The commission approved McGrath’s project 2-1 in December 2016. On appeal, the council approved it 3-2 in January 2017, despite opponents’ arguments that the city should have considered factors like parking, traffic, safety and soil contamination.

The lawsuit was filed by the McCorkle Eastside Neighborhood Group and St. Helena Residents for an Equitable General Plan. Vickie Bradshaw, speaking on behalf of those groups, said the plaintiffs were disappointed by the ruling and haven’t decided whether to seek review by the California Supreme Court.

“A key policy issue learned from this decision is that Council members should not pass resolutions drafted by staff that contain findings on specific issues that the Council was prevented from even discussing, considering, let alone deciding,” Bradshaw wrote in a statement.

McGrath said he was pleased with the outcome of the case, but “there are no winners here.”

“Defending this lawsuit has driven up the cost of the McCorkle project by nearly 15 percent over budget,” he wrote in a statement. “St. Helena loses, as this lawsuit has deterred, and will continue to deter, other quality developers from building highly-needed, affordable, small, quality infill projects that tuck neatly into neighborhoods.

“Median income workers lose, as the full absorption of the legal defense costs alone would, if passed on, translate to nearly $500/month rental premium for each 2-bedroom apartment unit. And most of all, the community loses, as taking a litigative versus collaborative approach creates rancor and division that makes this community a less desirable place to live and work.”

McGrath said he looks forward to putting the eight rental units on the market in the early spring of 2019 and thanked Montelli Construction, Navone Construction, and the other local crews who built the project.

Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, City Manager Mark Prestwich and City Attorney Tom Brown declined to comment on the case.