Now more than two decades old, the rule that Napa wine be made with at least 75-percent Napa grapes is a signature of the wine industry.
But two wineries’ recent proposals to expand production has called into question that rule’s future viability. What happens if wineries’ production exceeds the availability of Napa County grapes and crashes headlong into the 75-percent rule?
Industry groups say it’s far too early to render any verdicts on that fear. They are in the early stages of analyzing the data and trends in grape and wine production.
The issue, however, surfaced before the Napa County Planning Commission last month when Rutherford-based Raymond Vineyards proposed to double its production. That lead to questions of whether it would be able to accomplish that while still complying with the long-standing 75-percent rule.
The commission was scheduled to render a decision on Raymond’s application Wednesday, but that hearing has been canceled and will be rescheduled, County Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said Tuesday.
Gitelman said staff will be doing additional analysis and responding to comments submitted about the project.
Raymond wanted the commission to approve its plans to expand from 750,000 gallons to 1.5 million gallons annually. Planning Department staff were prepared to recommend expansion so long as the winery could prove its compliance with the 75-percent rule.
This was the first time any expansion permit has seen a condition of approval like that since the adoption of the winery-definition ordinance, which includes the 75-percent rule, in 1990, said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
“You see it in the Raymond application,” Putnam said. “That’s new. That’s the first time we’ve ever seen that.”
Gitelman said she’s heard positive feedback about that condition, although Jeff Redding, a consultant hired by Raymond, said at the commission’s meeting in June that it was unnecessary.
Redding said state and federal regulators were better able to ensure compliance than the county.
“I don’t think there’s any disagreement that the project has to comply with the 75-percent rule,” Gitelman said. “In light of that, everybody I’ve talked to really liked the condition of approval.”
Gitelman said the winery would have to come into the Planning Department and prove, through data submitted to the state, the source of its grapes.
Raymond wasn’t the first winery to confront the issue this year. In March, Reata Winery on Jameson Canyon Road asked the Planning Commission to approve its expansion from 200,000 gallons to 3.5 million gallons of on-site fermentation and bottling, as well as bulk wine bottling.
Before ultimately approving a smaller expansion, to 800,000 gallons annually, the commissioner questioned whether Reata would be able to comply with the 75-percent rule and expand its production to the desired amount.
A planning staff memo drafted before Raymond went before the commission in June hinted at possible future struggles with winery expansion and compliance with the 75-percent rule.
It noted that because of the total amount of approved production for Napa wineries, the county needs to produce 26.5 million gallons annually with Napa grapes. The availability of Napa grapes over the past six years has varied from 18.5 million to 29 million gallons annually, the memo said.
Countywide production isn’t an issue in many years because wineries don’t often produce the maximum allowed by permit, but the memo concluded it could be an issue in the future.
Putnam said it’s premature to draw conclusions from Reata and Raymond applications. More analysis from the industry and the county is needed, she said.
“We’re not there yet,” Putnam said. “If we were, there would be symptoms. Check back in five years.”
Putnam also said her organization is reserving judgment on Raymond, as the application could change before it comes back before the commission.
She said it’s a benefit for the industry to have the various groups collaborate in analyzing one of its signature laws, the winery definition ordinance.
“We are taking the WDO very seriously in terms of what was written in the code in 1990 and what’s being practiced today,” ” Putnam said.
Sandy Elles of the Napa County Farm Bureau said the groups want to support the ordinance.
“That foundation of support is there,” Elles said. “The ordinance itself is a delicate balance.”