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Grapegrower challenges use of wine ordinance

Andy Beckstoffer fears wineries are finding loophole to source more out-of-county grapes

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Andy Beckstoffer

Andy Beckstoffer walks through his Dr. Crane Vineyard at the end of Grayson Avenue in St. Helena. Star file photo

In a hearing in February, the Napa County Planning Commission took up the county’s 23-year-old Winery Definition Ordinance and an issue that has rankled some longtime Napa Valley grapegrowers — how county planning staff interpret the ordinance and apply it to older wineries’ expansions.

After much debate, the hearing ended with neither the commissioners nor county planning staff willing to make any changes to the ordinance and their interpretations of it. Six months later, Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards, a major Napa County grower, is undeterred.

Beckstoffer said in an interview Wednesday he continues to push wine industry groups to advocate changing the county’s interpretation of the ordinance. This interpretation allows older wineries — which pre-date the WDO’s adoption in 1990 — to apply Napa Valley grapes from their current use permits to production expansions.

Production that pre-dates the Winery Definition Ordinance is exempt from its regulations, including its signature stipulation — that wine made in Napa must be made with 75-percent Napa grapes. Napa crushed about 110,000 tons of grapes in 1989 and 1990, which could hypothetically be put toward expansions.

Beckstoffer fears that “source-shifting” allows older wineries to take that exempted production, apply it to an expansion to comply with the 75-percent rule, and then backfill with out-of-county grapes, such as those from Lodi or other wine regions.

The issue first came to light more than a year ago, when Raymond Vineyards proposed to double annual production of its Rutherford-based winery, from 750,000 gallons to 1.5 million gallons.

After a hearing before the county planning commission in June 2012, Raymond’s application was shelved. But it did set off months of debate among wine industry groups about the Winery Definition Ordinance and the 75-percent rule, which culminated in the February hearing.

Raymond’s proposal drew concerns from Beckstoffer, a neighbor of the winery. On Wednesday, Beckstoffer was critical of Jean-Charles Boisset, the president of Boisset Family Estates, which owns Raymond among other wineries and properties in France and California.

“I’m not worried about the existing winery people,” Beckstoffer said. “I’m worried about the Boissets of the world who treat this as an entitlement — people who don’t care about the valley like we do. It’s an item on their international portfolio.”

Jeffrey Redding, a land-use consultant working with Raymond on its proposal, said his clients did not have a response to Beckstoffer’s comments. Raymond is complying with the county’s current regulations and interpretations of the Winery Definition Ordinance, Redding said, and is working to respond to questions from county planning staff.

Raymond hasn’t substantially changed its plans from last year, and may be re-submitting its application to the county in the next month or so. Another hearing before the county Planning Commission would follow.

At February’s hearing, the commissioners agreed that they didn’t see a need to pursue major changes to the Winery Definition Ordinance or the county’s enforcement of the 75-percent rule.

They did say they would be more cautious and deliberate before approving a major expansion for a Napa Valley winery, and make wineries prove they’re complying with the 75-percent rule before they expand. The county has added winery’s grape sourcing and tours and tastings to its annual random audit.

Beckstoffer said that helps, but doesn’t go far enough in protecting Napa County agriculture. His issue is the county allowing source-shifting, which can justify expanding wineries’ footprints — such as when they consume more agricultural land with larger facilities. That should require an environmental impact report to examine the potential effects, Beckstoffer contends.

“If you stay there and stay in your footprint, I’ve got nothing to say,” Beckstoffer said. “None of us are willing to put up with this for crushing Lodi grapes. I understand what they’re doing. It’s a great business plan, unless you’re trying to protect the valley.”

Testimony from the February hearing disputes some of Beckstoffer’s charges. Alex Ryan, CEO and president of Duckhorn Wine Company, testified that he prized his company’s grandfathered winery rights, and wouldn’t abuse that through source-shifting.

The Napa Valley Vintners opposes Beckstoffer’s position, saying it would change the long-held rules and grandfathered wineries’ rights. The purchase and source records for pre-1990 production has been kept anonymous for 23 years.

“Any effort to renegotiate this 23-year-old deal would do nothing but claw back the vested use-permit entitlements of a couple of hundred of long-standing Napa Valley wineries,” said Rex Stults, the director of government relations for the Vintners.

Beckstoffer said he’s personally pushing for this change, and is trying to create a groundswell of political support for his position. The Sierra Club is supporting him, he said.

He said he doesn’t want to see a lawsuit filed against the Winery Definition Ordinance.

“There’s so much more going on that could have major ramifications for where we go from here,” Beckstoffer said. “I don’t want a lawsuit. I think we just need to define the rules much better.”

Stults said the February hearing provided an answer to the debate.

“It would be hard to be in that Planning Commission hearing and not think it was pretty loud and clear,” Stults said. “I think there’s probably more fruitful ways we could be spending our time at this point.”

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