At the same time Caymus Vineyards owner Chuck Wagner was settling his long-standing legal disputes with county officials this week, he warned that recent pressure on his and other wineries could threaten the county’s core industry.
“We cannot take for granted Napa Valley will hold onto its high status in the wine world,” Wagner said on Tuesday as county officials approved a final settlement with the winery. “We also can’t take for granted the valley will remain the unique place it is without a thriving wine business.”
With that, he linked the Caymus situation to the bigger Napa Valley winery growth debate that has dominated many a recent Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting.
“I cannot overstate what’s at stake not only for Caymus, but other wineries in Napa Valley,” he said.
The Wagner family has run Caymus Vineyards at 8700 Conn Creek Road near Rutherford since 1972. Their struggle with officials began in 2009, when Napa County chose Caymus at random for the annual winery audit that looks at whether wineries are complying with their use permits.
Napa County contends that Caymus Vineyards exceeded its wine production limits by more than tenfold in recent years and constructed buildings without permits. A key issue involved whether the bottling of wine made elsewhere by the family should count as production.
As a result, the county fined Caymus $1 million in 2013. The two parties have spent several years trying to resolve their differences.
On Tuesday, the Napa County Board of Supervisors approved a modified Caymus use permit. Among other things, Caymus must cut wine production to its currently permitted 110,000 gallons in either 2017 or 2018 before having it rise to 660,000 gallons for subsequent years.
County supervisors have heard plenty of warnings about the future of Napa Valley. Some residents and groups – the naysayers, as Wagner called them—say that too many winery event centers and wineries could rob Napa Valley of the rural charms that make it an attraction in the first place.
Code enforcement has also been a contentious issue. Some residents say the county too often forgives wineries that violate the rules, though in the Caymus case the situation escalated.
The Board of Supervisors over the past year has done such things as convene a winery growth summit and a public committee to address the issues of winery growth and agricultural protection.
Caymus will achieve the wine production limits in the settlement largely by moving its bottling operation to a new winery that the Wagner family is building in Suisun Valley in neighboring Solano County. That facility will be able to produce up to 5 million gallons annually.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” Wagner said before the meeting.
The sweet part? Wagner said there are some really good things going on in Suisun Valley just across the western hills. He showed a photograph of a bottle of his new, 2014 Caymus-Suisun petite sirah wine.
The bitter part is he sees things going on in Napa Valley that he dislikes, Wagner said. He elaborated when he addressed the Board of Supervisors, which he thanked for helping to resolve the Caymus situation.
“Our situation reflects the tough choice we as the community are facing,” Wagner said.
On one hand, under the agreement Caymus Vineyards will be have fewer trucks going to Napa Valley. It will also be using less groundwater and producing less wastewater at Rutherford.
But jobs will be moving to Suisun Valley, Wagner said. By 2018, Caymus will be producing most of its wine and doing all of its bottling, storage and shipping there. Eighty percent of its Napa Valley wines will be produced outside of Napa Valley.
By harvest 2018, Caymus will have the same production at its Rutherford winery that it had in 1988.
“To me, this does not seem fair or righteous,” Wagner said. “But we will take our lumps to make the valley a better place.”
But, he warned, a threat to the wine business is a threat to agriculture and a way of life so many people have worked so hard to build here. Wineries are under siege by a verbal minority that doesn’t understand the realities of the increasingly competitive business, he said.
“You as a Board play a huge role in keeping the wine business vibrant,” Wagner said. “I ask you to remember an overwhelming majority of residents see the wine business as a force for good.”
He sees the wine business not as Napa Valley’s problem, but the force that will allow Napa Valley to solve its problems.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisors Mark Luce and Brad Wagenknecht expressed concern that Caymus under the revised permit can have visitors to 8:30 p.m., though those after 5 p.m. would be by appointment only.
“I believe that’s a precedent that would be rapidly followed throughout the valley,” Luce said.
The county has typically not allowed wineries to have visitors that late. Luce noted that the late hours are especially a concern because some see wine-and-food pairings as crossing a blurry line into restaurant service.
The Board of Supervisors approved the Caymus permit changes. But it also identified later winery visiting hours as another issue that needs a deeper look in coming months.