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Wine Industry

Two new Napa County wineries — one very big, one very small —approved

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: June 5, 2021 series
Rutherford American Viticultural Area

The Napa County Planning Commission last week approved Benjamin Ranch Winery in the Rutherford area.

Two proposed, very different wineries won Napa County approval, one on the larger side for wineries built in recent years and the other small enough to fit in an existing agricultural building.

The county Planning Commission approved both Benjamin Ranch Winery in the Rutherford area and Taplin Cellars Winery near St. Helena. The applications are a study in contrasts.

Rich and Leslie Frank proposed a 475,000-gallon-a-year winery on their 87-acre Benjamin Ranch along Conn Creek Road at Highway 128. The Franks already run Frank Family Vineyards winery on Larkmead Lane near Calistoga.

Planning Commission Chairperson Andrew Mazotti said the proposal brings some sticker shock, given the commission often considers wineries with a quarter of that production or less. But it’s not unreasonable, he added.

“It’s a large site on the valley floor,” Mazotti said. “It seems to check the boxes.”

Some residents voiced concerns about the size of the operation and the traffic it would bring. Judith Crichton said the proposal is for an “industrial, commercial enterprise” better suited for a corporate park.

“Plunking a Costco-size building, 94 parking spaces, and a commercial, two-lane road in one of the last, pristine swaths of vineyards in the ag preserve is unconscionable,” she told commissioners.

Costco reports its warehouses are 80,000 to 230,000 square feet, with an average size of 146,000 square feet. Benjamin Ranch Winery is to have 87,000 square feet of buildings.

Vintner Michael Honig in a letter unsuccessfully asked the commission to delay ruling on the project for 90 days, given what he called a significant amount of new information. He owns an adjoining property.

Attorney Scott Greenwood-Meinert on behalf of the Franks made the case that this particular site is good for a winery of this size. Napa County needs more wine production capacity, he said.

“Napa Valley needs more projects like this one, where large vineyards areas have a large vineyard management yard that can easily be converted to a serious production facility with minimal vineyard loss,” Greenwood-Meinert said.

He also portrayed the winery as building Napa Valley's future in a way that Napa Valley was originally built.

“Napa Valley wasn’t built on boutique wineries and mansions on prime agricultural soils,” he said. “It’s just become that place.”

While he isn’t condemning those uses, the Franks’ project is more efficient and effective agriculture, he said.

The Planning Commission previously considered the Benjamin Ranch Winery last September, but didn’t arrive at a decision. The Franks cut proposed annual visitation from 145,600 guests to 87,150 guests for this month's hearing.

Commissioners Mazotti, Dave Whitmer, and Megan Dameron voted in favor of the project. Opposed were Commissioner Anne Cottrell and Joelle Gallagher. Cottrell favored less production and visitors.

The Franks have made wine for about 30 years at Frank Family Vineyards winery. Rich Frank is the former president of Paramount Television Group and Disney Studios and is vice president of the American Film Institute board of directors.

Taplin Cellars Winery 

Also, the Planning Commission unanimously approved Taplin Cellars Winery. This is to be a 20,000-gallon-a-year winery on 20 acres at 1677 Lewelling Lane near St. Helena.

The Taplin family has been in Napa County for more than 150 years. The farming family started making Taplin Cellars wine 10 years ago and uses a custom crush facility in the airport industrial area.

The winery is to be 3,615 square feet inside an existing, 5,800-square-foot agricultural building, a county report said. It is to have 6,180 visitors annually.

Stephen Taplin told commissioners that when he left Napa Valley for school, there were only about 25 wineries. The county has built an industry that opens up opportunities for children to return to the valley, he said.

“That’s a big step," Taplin said. "We do appreciate how much has come before us and how much has created the opportunity for us to move ahead.”

Commissioners quickly approved the project.

“This is a small family winery, which is exactly what we should be looking at and approving,” Whitmer said. “It is a modest ask, I would say.”

Mazotti also praised the project.

“These are my favorite projects to approve, as well — people in the community, local, family-owned, looking to be generational, a passion behind what they do,” he said.

Rombauer Vineyards' viticulturist Patrick Tokar explains how sheep are helping to diversify their St. Helena vineyard's ecosystem.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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