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Wine Industry

Napa County Planning Commission endorses micro-winery law

Hillside vineyards

Napa County is looking at a micro-winery law designed to help small, family farms host wine tastings.

Advocates who say Napa County should make it easier for small farms to create "micro-wineries" have secured backing from the county Planning Commission.

The group Save the Family Farms says the county permit process isn't geared for "mom-and-pop" operations. These grape growers want a financially viable path to create smaller wineries and gain the right to hold tastings at their vineyards.

On Wednesday, the county Planning Commission endorsed a micro-winery ordinance that has been several years in the making. The proposed law next goes to the county Board of Supervisors.

“I feel this is so well-thought-out, so well-polished, I really want to see this succeed,” Commission Chairperson Megan Dameron said.

George O’Meara of Save the Family Farms left no doubt as to what the day meant to the group.

“To use a football analogy, this is kind of like our Super Bowl,” O’Meara said.

Some groups and individuals during public comments expressed concern about unintended consequences. They wanted to make certain the legal language doesn’t somehow allow for agricultural land to be over-developed, as opposed to helping small family farms.

Save the Family Farms represents farmers who in large part make wine offsite at custom crush wineries and have no wineries of their own. Members initially wanted to be able to hold tastings on picnic tables near their vineyards.

But Napa County restricts tours and tastings in agricultural areas to wineries. Tours and tastings under the county's 1990 winery definition ordinance must be “clearly incidental, related and subordinate” to making wine.

“In the end, we don’t want to have pretty tasting rooms out in the ag preserve where no wine is being produced,” Commissioner Joelle Gallagher said.

Save the Family Farms said members don’t make enough wine to warrant building full-fledged Napa County wineries at a cost of $5 million to $10 million. It said the county permit process isn't geared toward creating smaller wineries, perhaps even in existing structures such as barns.

All of this led to the idea of a new category of wineries called micro-wineries. Among other things, a micro-winery as proposed by the county would:

  • Produce at least 200 gallons annually — just over what is allowed to be made in a home — and no more than 5,000 gallons.
  • Use 75% fruit grown on the same property or adjacent properties with the same owner.
  • Have no more than 5,000 square feet of enclosed space.
  • Generate no more than an average of 10 roundtrips daily for visitors, employees, and deliveries.
  • Hold no marketing events.
  • Make no use permit changes for at least two years.
  • Gain approval from the Zoning Administrator, rather than the Planning Commission.
  • Follow winery definition ordinance rules, such as new wineries having to be on parcels of 10 acres or more.

Napa County would accept micro-winery applications for three years. Then it would take stock of the pilot program and decide whether to continue accepting new applications.

Kara Krushin is general manager of Maroon Wines, which produces 2,000 cases annually using 16 acres of Cabernet in the Coombsville area. The business doesn’t have an onsite winery, so it can’t hold onsite tastings under Napa County law.

“We want to be able to provide Napa visitors as consumers the ability to visit these vineyards and experience what it's like to be a small boutique winery and talk with the winemakers and owners,” she said.

Mike Hackett said Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture supports a micro-winery law. But, he said, the limit of two years before being able to seek use permit changes from the county is "nothing." This could be a camel’s nose under the tent to expand urban uses in rural areas.

Michelle Novi spoke on behalf of Napa Valley Vintners and its 550 members. She said that, though the group has worked on the Save the Family Farms issue for years, it wasn’t given notice from the county on the latest changes in time to convene its vintners task force.

“I am very sorry today to say the process here just didn’t facilitate our participation, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Novi told the Planning Commission.

The county posted online the staff reports for the micro-winery law along with the Planning Commission agenda on Jan. 26. County officials said the proposed law is close to what county supervisors discussed in September, with the exception of minimum production.

Planning commissioners talked about possible unintended consequences. Commissioner Dave Whitmer said the proposed law while restricting vehicle trips, could still allow 60-person buses that would change the feeling in a rural neighborhood.

“I don’t think the intent for the small farms is to include busloads of people,” he said.

Commissioners voiced other concerns, such as whether micro-wineries in high fire danger areas would be barred from having visitors on red-flag warning days. Another is whether micro-wineries would provide contact information to neighbors to talk about potential issues.

But the commission, while passing on its concerns to the Board of Supervisors for further discussion, recommended only one change to the proposed law. Instead of saying micro-wineries must have annual “production capacity” of 200 gallons to 5,000 gallons, the commission wants to simply say “production.”

The goal of the change is to make certain a micro-winery is actually producing wine, instead of only hosting visitors.

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You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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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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Put on each year by the Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation and Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa County Pruning Contest is a way for the groups to recognize the valley’s talented vineyard crews via friendly competition.

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