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Finding the ideal way to tame Napa County tourism one new winery at a time remains an elusive quest for the county Planning Commission, though the end may be near.

The commission typically limits how many visitors can come to a proposed winery each day, week and year. It has held four workshops over a half-year—including one on Wednesday—looking for more guidance on how to arrive at these numbers.

Commissioners at previous meetings pursued establishing a formula. The idea was to take a proposed winery and look at median visitation allowed at existing wineries with similar wine production. That in turn involved taking into consideration that the county’s 400-plus rural wineries have been built over the decades under different regulations.

The formula would yield a baseline visitation number that commissioners could modify after considering such factors as the proposed winery’s location. Gone would be at least some of the case-by-case agonizing.

The latest Planning Commission workshop took stock of the quest, with varying opinions expressed and perhaps a change in direction arising.

“It appears to me the more we’ve gone down this path, the murkier the water has gotten,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said at the start of the session. “I’m not sure we’re any closer to an answer today than we were six months ago.”

Morrison both verbally and in a written report described why the commission feels it must address visitation. One concern is that new wineries rely more on direct-to-consumer sales, creating the perception that hospitality is no longer subordinate to agriculture. The other is that winery visitors have a cumulative impact on traffic, water and affordable housing.

But Morrison didn’t blame wineries alone for such issues as traffic congestion. The recent Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency traffic study showed tourism-associated traffic accounts for 21 percent of local trips. Further regulating the wine industry alone won’t solve county-wide problems, he said.

No other major California wine-producing county regulates how many visitors a winery might have each day, week, month or year, Morrison said. Napa County doesn’t regulate visitation for restaurants or hotels. A store doesn’t close its door once it reaches its 3,000th customer of the day.

As a result, no parallel situations exist to help the county develop visitation benchmarks for new wineries, he said.

In addition, the county doesn’t know how many people visit each winery. Morrison said it relies on log books or appointment books kept by the wineries and has no way to independently verify these records.

“It’s pretty much the honor system,” Morrison said.

He suggested alternatives to a formula. Ideas included limiting parking areas, the days of the week tasting rooms can be open, the size of tasting rooms and the number of visitors allowed at any one time. But the commission didn’t appear to want to go that route.

Several commissioners didn’t think their quest for a clearer way to determine visitation caps had bogged down. Commissioner Anne Cottrell said she feels the commission is honing in on its goal, even if its dive into details might make it seem otherwise.

“Yes, it has taken some time, and we have gone into the weeds,” Cottrell said.

Commissioner Terry Scott said location of a proposed winery is a major factor in determining its allowed visitation. A winery on a dead-end road is different than a winery along Highway 29 or Silverado Trail.

“Accessibility, I think that’s an important thing,” Scott said. “That has a major impact on things like public safety.”

The commission expressed interest in an alternative to creating a winery visitation cap formula that spits out a baseline number. Rather, planning staff could simply provide more information on comparable wineries. Commissioners would use this information as they discuss possible visitation caps for each proposed winery.

During public comments, Alex Ryan of Duckhorn Vineyards applauded the commission for taking on a difficult issue. Visitation is at the crux of a lot of land use and residential impact issues. But, he said, wineries are diverse with different business models and visitation needs.

“There is no one wine industry,” he said. “To try to pigeonhole it—it’s the Screaming Eagle versus Gallo. They shouldn’t even be in the same industry. They have nothing related to one another.”

Commission Chairwoman Heather Phillips said after the meeting that the visitation sessions appear close to an end.

But concluding the quest will take at least one more meeting. Planning staff will return at a future date with possible visitation comparison data.

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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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