Opus One winery convinced county Planning Commissioners on Wednesday that its success warrants doubling wine production and making other changes, despite some public concerns about cumulative impacts.
“I think it is a well-designed change for this winery that is minimally impactful,” Commissioner Michael Basayne said before the commission granted unanimous approval.
Wine legends Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild founded Opus One in 1979. Located in Oakville in the heart of Napa Valley, the winery makes only one wine.
The building itself opened in 1991 and is one of the more striking sights along Highway 29. Green lawns slant upward to meet the walls of the front building, which seems to be rising out of the earth with some of the landscape still clinging to it.
Opus One is permitted to produce up to 110,000 gallons of wine annually. Despite the limit, it produced 170,590 gallons in 2012 and 116,580 gallons in 2015. It wants to change its permit so it can produce up to 250,000 gallons annually, a county report said.
The winery also asked to expand its 80,000-square-foot winery by 51,906 square feet for a fermentation tank room, barrel preparation area, storage, conference rooms, offices and other uses. New structures would be built to the rear of the winery.
Basayne said the appearance of Opus One is iconic. He noted the architectural firm that designed it also designed San Francisco’s Transamerica pyramid.
“It’s very obvious the changes proposed will not be visible from the passersby on Highway 29,” Basayne said.
Opus One CEO David Pearson said the expansion is designed by Scott Johnson, who designed the original winery.
When built, the winery had enough space for the production demand, the Opus One expansion application packet said. No longer.
“Fast-forward 25 years and the Opus One luxury brand is now revered as iconic and recognized across the United States, Asia, Europe and many other parts of the globe,” the application said.
The expansion request includes increasing visitation from a maximum of 1,200 visitors weekly to 1,450 visitors weekly.
Two public speakers asked the county to take into consideration the cumulative impacts caused by winery growth in general. Under this viewpoint, winery projects individually might not do such things as increase traffic congestion. Add them together, though, and they have a big effect.
“At what point do we arrive at the tipping point and kill the golden goose?” St. Helena resident Geoff Ellsworth said.
Several commissioners said that they, too, are mindful of cumulative impacts.
“I’m going to do everything I can to maintain the quality of life we have in the Napa Valley,” Commissioner Terry Scott said.
Commissioner Jeri Gill said Opus One is working with other wineries on starting an employee shuttle. She called this one of the innovative solutions being looked at to deal with traffic.
Much of the Napa Valley growth debate involves a shift in the industry to more direct-to-consumer sales at the wineries. Owners of many wineries have said they must go this direction because it is harder to find distributors to bring their wines to market.
Pearson said Opus One remains dedicated to working with distributors. It uses the winery to seed customers.
“It would be shortsighted for us to start selling as much wine as we can from the winery,” Pearson said.
County staff questioned whether 30 office jobs unrelated to production and hospitality already at the winery can be considered as being consistent with agriculture as defined by the county. But these uses predate the Winery Definition Ordinance and thus can remain, a county report said.
Still, expansion of non-agricultural, corporate office jobs at a winery should be done elsewhere, such as the county’s airport industrial park, it said.
Opus One made its case to the county for its proposed changes in its project application packet.
“We hope that this project will be seen as reflective of the proper and healthy growth that the valley has enjoyed over the past decades and that is designed to ensure a continued healthy wine business for decades to come,” the application said.