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Top Stories of 2019: No. 3

No. 3 story of 2019: Napa County wine scene sees triumphs and challenges

From the Napa Valley Register's Top 10 stories of 2019 series
Vineyard on Vallejo Street, St. Helena

Grapes wait to be harvested in a vineyard on Vallejo Street in St. Helena.

Napa County’s wine industry in 2019 saw a crop report for the ages, battles over remote wineries, a debate over new watershed vineyards and a county offer to rule-breaking wineries.

In short, it was a busy year.

The Napa County crop report issued in June looked back on 2018. The county set an all-time record in agricultural value by topping $1 billion for the first time. The previous county record was $757 million in 2017.

Almost all of the crop value came from wine grapes.

“That kind of economic value in other places looks far different in buildings and pavement,” county Board of Supervisors chairperson Ryan Gregory said. “Here, it’s beautiful open space.”

2019 also saw Napa County try to rein in the rule-breakers. The county regulates how much wine each winery can make and how many visitors each winery can have. It prohibits wineries from doing such things as offering restaurant-equivalent meals.

The county in some cases lowered the boom.

The Prisoner Wine Company and B Cellars received notices of apparent code violations for allegedly taking wine/food pairings into restaurant territory. Castello di Amorosa received a notice for such alleged problems as holding tastings in an area approved for storage.

Code Compliance Supervisor Linda St. Claire said in December that the B Cellars case is resolved. The Prisoner and Castello di Amorosa are working toward resolution.

The county in February settled a 2017 lawsuit it brought against Bremer Family Winery for a spate of alleged violations. The Bremers received lower visitation than they sought and no marketing events or food service. They agreed to pay the county $271,464 for legal costs.

Napa County has more than 500 wineries with use permits dating back to the 1970s and layers of rules created over the past few decades. Whether on purpose or out of confusion, some wineries – no one knows how many—break the rules.

In a move to resolve the situation, the county offered wineries with violations the chance to try to legalize their practices without penalties. They had to voluntarily step forward by March 29 to be eligible. More than 50 did.

O’Brien Estate winery in March became the first winery to come to the Planning Commission to try to legalize violations under the code compliance program. A 1982 use permit issued to a previous owner didn’t allow tours or tastings, but the winery was hosting visitors.

The Planning Commission gave O’Brien Estate winery a clean slate and legalized visitation by a 3-2 vote. Dissenting commissioners thought the visitation levels too high.

By year’s end, four wineries participating in the code compliance program had appeared before the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission approved the changes needed to legalize existing practices in three cases and delayed action on the fourth.

“I see this application to be relatively routine,” Planning Commissioner Dave Whitmer said after the commission unanimously legalized Brasswood winery’s wine production.

Many more such cases, both routine and difficult, will likely go to the commission in 2020.

Disputes over locating new wineries or expanding existing wineries in remote locations continued in 2019. A recipe for controversy was to propose bringing winery visitors along narrow roads into local hills.

Hard Six Cellars proved a prime example. Opponents said establishing this proposed winery in the mountains west of Calistoga would bring too much traffic to Diamond Mountain Road, posing accident and other risks.

“So the question is, what does it take to deny a winery up in the hills?” Diamond Mountain area resident George Caloyannidis asked at the Oct. 16 county Planning Commission meeting.

The Planning Commission approved the winery, though some commissioners expressed misgivings. They noted that the Board of Supervisors makes policies and the Planning Commission carries them out.

“I feel like we don’t really have the policy behind us right now to really deny this,” Commission chairperson Joelle Gallagher said.

The Board of Supervisors in 2020 is to hear the Diamond Mountain winery on appeal from opponents. Also, the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission are to meet. More clarity on the remote winery situation could emerge.

Napa County opened the year trying to heal divisions caused by tree and watershed protection debates. A key was figuring out under what conditions new vineyards could be planted in the mountains framing the Napa Valley, given the valley floor is already full.

Local resident and environmentalist Jim Wilson was among those calling for stronger rules to rein in the removal of forests and woodlands for vineyards.

“This is part of the considerations – how do we get some real improvements in watershed protections, instead of small, incremental improvements and more halfway measures in a climate change world?” he said.

Michelle Benvenuto of Winegrowers of Napa County told the county Board of Supervisors in April that local forests have decreased only 1.2 percent since 2005.

“Again, this isn’t deforestation going on,” she said. “This isn’t our hillsides being destroyed. This is our existing regulations working.”

Measure C, a watershed-and-tree protection ballot measure that narrowly failed at the ballot box in 2018, served as a backdrop for the debate. Major wine industry groups opposed the measure, causing friction with local environmentalists.

The Board of Supervisors talked about striking a balance before passing new rules.

“I appreciate people are still not totally satisfied,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said. “I’ve heard that. My emails and phone have been telling me that for the past couple of weeks. But I think we’ve gotten to a good spot.”

Whether the watershed battle will resume at the ballot box could become clear in 2020.

Also this past year, a wine expert urged wineries to think about how to attract the “missing millennials.”

Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, brought up the topic when speaking to the Planning Commission. Simply waiting five years and hoping the millennials start to buy isn’t the smartest strategy, because hope isn’t a strategy, he said.

“We have to find ways to attack this problem,” he said.

That could be a challenge for 2020 and beyond.

Barry Eberling's memorable stories from 2019

Here's some of my 2019 stories from the Napa County world of transportation, wine and communities - nothing too heavy, but hopefully with useful information.

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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