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Napa County returns Benjamin Ranch winery to Planning Commission

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Napa County seal

Napa County seal

A quest to establish Benjamin Ranch winery near Rutherford in Napa Valley has taken a new turn that could result in a scaled-down project.

The winery originally proposed by the Frank family won Napa County Planning Commission approval in May 2021. It could produce up to 475,000 gallons of wine annually and have more than 87,000 visitors annually.

Proponents said the winery would provide needed production capacity at an ideal site in an area with large vineyards. Critics said it would be too big and attract too many visitors, with some labeling it an “events center.”

That's become a common battle in Napa County in recent years. There are different visions of what wine country should be.

Vintner Michael Honig and Keep Rutherford Rural filed an appeal over Benjamin Ranch winery with the Napa County Board of Supervisors. Supervisors on Tuesday delayed the appeal hearing and remanded the case to the Planning Commission.

Supervisors want more information given recent changes. Treasury Wine Estates bought Frank Family Vineyards last December, including the 85-acre Benjamin Ranch.

In a May 12 letter to the county, Treasury Wine Estates says it wants to cut proposed annual production by 37%, to 300,000 gallons. It wants to cut annual tasting visitors by 60%, to 36,400. It wants to cut annual marketing event visitation by 56%, to 600.

In addition, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has new greenhouse gas emission and air quality guidelines. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 28 issued an executive order addressing the drought, which will mean updating the project's water analysis, a county report said.

The Board of Supervisors wants the Planning Commission to create an advisory report looking at these issues. Supervisors would then hold the appeal hearing.

"A remand will enable Treasury to propose design changes that can be fully evaluated by staff, the appellant and the public and will allow staff to address the recent changes in law," a county report said.

The applicant, appellant and county staff requested the remand to the Planning Commission, the county report said. But that doesn't mean opponents are ready to embrace Benjamin Ranch winery.

"Our group was happy to hear Treasury is willing to lower their visitation and production numbers," Honig said by email.  "The problem is they still want to build a 90,000-square-foot facility.  We think they plan on overbuilding the facility so they can go back in a few years and ask for the production and visitation numbers they are giving up today."

County Supervising Planner Charlene Gallina on Friday said Treasury Wine Estates also wants to look at revising the winery design, which could change the size. No new proposal had yet been submitted to the county.

Then there is the matter of whether the winery should be required to install a left-turn lane on Conn Creek Road (Highway 128). The county initially wanted the lane, but later deleted the requirement.

Honig contended that county staff changed a left-turn lane policy without Board of Supervisors approval and that allowed the project to move forward. He pointed to a Dec. 17, 2019 Board of Supervisors meeting where supervisors briefly discussed revising the policy, but never took a vote.

Supervisors didn’t delve into any of these issues during Tuesday's hearing. They simply remanded the matter to Planning Commission by unanimous vote to prepare the advisory report.

Benjamin Ranch is located at 8895 Conn Creek Road.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 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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