Crane Family Vineyards

This is the entrance to Crane Family Vineyards in Browns Valley, which is seeking to open a wine tasting room in an outbuilding on the property.

The Napa city Planning Commission has delayed a vote on the plan amid concerns about excessive commercial activity in an area zoned for residential use.

After more than 20 years of growing grapes and making wine at the edge of Browns Valley, Thomas Chiarella hopes to open a tasting room in a barn outside his home.

For now, the “home” part has become the stumbling block. Thursday night, the city Planning Commission delayed approval of the tasting room Chiarella seeks to create as a showcase for his winery, Crane Family Vineyards.

Despite the modest scale of the project – which would accept guests only by appointment – Napa’s development authority shied away from expanding the winemaker’s home-occupation rights to allow the tasting room at the 6.65-acre property at 1051 Borrette Lane. Commissioners said they hoped to avoid opening what Commissioner Paul Kelley called “a Pandora’s box” of unchecked home-business activity.

Rather than seek a rezoning, Chiarella hoped to gain wider rights within the property’s existing status, which calls for residential use with agriculture as an “accessory use.” But planners expressed concerns that the line between winemaking as a sideline and as a business might easily be erased, even with good intentions.

“My concern is where home occupation and residential production tips the scales and becomes a commercial winery,” Kelley told Chiarella before joining three other commissioners in putting the project on hold (Gordon Huether was absent). “Six acres and 3,000 gallons a year doesn’t feel like home occupation to me.”

The winery can reapply to build a tasting room, but likely would require a rezoning to move ahead. A winery use permit that would allow public visits requires at least a 20-acre parcel – triple the size of Crane’s – and creating a new zoning district to fit the winery’s needs would delay the process even longer, said Planning Manager Ken MacNab.

The plans offered by Chiarella are a sliver of the size and scale of the Napa Valley’s major-label wineries, with the tasting room filling only 256 square feet of a 642-square-foot outbuilding. In addition to barring walk-in visits, the tasting room would accept only five vehicles and 20 people daily, and the owner himself would conduct all tastings.

“There are those who would sell their homes and cash out,” he told commissioners. “I want to continue my passion for viticulture and winemaking for the next 20 years, and then pass it on to the next generation.”

While Crane Family Vineyards sells wine online, only a place to actually taste the wine can effectively introduce newcomers to the brand so they can later buy from the website or join its membership club, Chiarella argued.

“The reality is that people don’t buy wine online at Napa Valley price points without tasting it first, so most of our online business would be repeat business,” he told commissioners.

Still, supporters of slower growth came out against the tasting room, even as they conceded any traffic or noise impacts would be small.

While the flow of visitors to Chiarella’s tasting room might be a mere trickle, Napa risks losing its ability to regulate commercial activity in other residential areas, said Eve Kahn, a director of the sustainability advocacy group Napa Vision 2050.

“Even though this site may be more appropriate than others, you mess with that and people will come out of the woodwork saying, ‘Well, I can sell wine’ or ‘I can sell peaches’ or ‘I can sell knitted hats,’” she told city staff.

Another Napan, however, replied that the winery’s small size and quiet locale near the unincorporated county – and its focus on an intimate, one-on-one experience for visitors – ensure the city and neighbors will have nothing to fear.

The Crane winery’s future customers “are not people who just want a good time on a party bus,” said Jim Gunther. “Sit with him and you’ll know the last thing he wants is the party scene you see on Highway 29.”

In the end, city officials agreed the winery could coexist with a handful of visitors, but chose to avoid risking an opening to less responsible home businesses in the future.

“I don’t see an impact on the neighbors with five cars a day,” said Commissioner Tom Trzesniewski. But I have problems with the way this is being rolled out.”

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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