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Winery audit finds almost half didn't comply with use permits in 2013

A random audit of 20 Napa County wineries last year found eight that failed to comply with their use permit, either by exceeding their permitted production limits or by having more visitors than they were supposed to.

The results were discussed at a meeting of the Napa County Planning Commission Wednesday, and similar to past years, sparked a debate over whether the county was doing enough to ensure wineries are complying with their use permits.

In the annual audit, the county Planning Department selects the 20 wineries at random out of a pool of the approximately 400 active wineries in Napa County. It checks to see if their total gallons of wine production is within their limit, whether they’re complying with the rule that Napa wine be made with 75 percent Napa grapes, and if their visitation and marketing plans are up to code. Results of the audit are kept anonymous.

Commissioner Bob Fiddaman questioned if the wineries that don’t comply deserve anonymity, and noted that some wineries last year had significant violations. One winery had 1,000 more visitors than its weekly maximum of 400, while others held marketing events when they weren’t allowed to have any.

“I’m pleased to see we’ve got substantial compliance with this audit,” Fiddaman said. “There are some fairly significant exceptions, who I would characterize as scofflaws.”

But planning staff responded that wineries’ participation in the audit is voluntary, and the county’s goal is to bring them into compliance without drawn out, expensive legal actions. Mandating participation could lead to that, Deputy Planning Director John McDowell said.

“I’m lucky that people actually do report,” said Linda St. Claire, who conducted the audit for the Planning Department. “We’ve had really good compliance coming out of the audit.”

Michelle Novi of the Napa Valley Vintners said the audit was a good reason for her organization to stress the importance of use-permit compliance to its members, which it plans to in a workshop next month.

“The results of this year’s audit are somewhat disappointing,” Novi said. “This year’s audit will become the exception, and not the rule.”

Wineries above their permitted production capacity for one year are allowed to use the totals from the last several years to create an average if that will bring them into compliance. Two wineries that exceeded their production limits last year were able average their 2012 production to get under the cap, St. Claire said.

A third winery exceeded their limit, and will have to get a use permit modification, St. Claire said. A fourth winery produced no wine for the last nine years, and instead has been selling older wine to guests during tours and tastings. That violates the use permit, and the winery will have to start producing wine or else face having the permit revoked, she said.

Only one winery failed the 75-percent rule, a key provision of the county’s Winery Definition Ordinance that affects new wineries granted use permits after 1990, or older wineries’ expansions after 1990.

Using the grape sourcing documents submitted to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, St. Claire found that the winery had only used 52 percent Napa grapes, with the rest coming from Sonoma and Marin counties. The remaining wineries either weren’t subject to the 75 percent rule because they predated its passage in 1990, or were using 94 to 100 percent Napa grapes.

Compliance with visitation and marketing event limits was harder to come by. Eight wineries, including those that exceeded production or failed to comply with grape sourcing requirements, either had too many visitors in a weekly check, or held events they weren’t supposed to.

The violations ranged from having a cap of 28 weekly visitors but hosting 45 to bringing in 1,400 people when the weekly maximum was 400. Two wineries who weren’t allowed to hold marketing events held seven and eight such events, respectively.

David Hallett, a Soda Canyon resident, said the results of the audit signals that a far greater number of wineries were likely out of compliance with their use permits as well. He said the county needed to hire more staff to expand the audit.

“That is not auditing,” Hallett said. “That is sampling. That is a lot of wineries that are probably out of compliance. They don’t have the personnel to do it.”

Winemaker Robert Mondavi Jr. responded that this could jeopardize the relationship winery owners have with the county government, when the majority works hard to comply with their use permits.

“We want to comply,” Mondavi said. “We’re talking about a lot of government — a lot of compliance. We have to run a clean shop. We want to do that because we love this valley. I just want to be cautious about how far this pendulum can swing.”

The commissioners agreed that expanding the audit was unnecessary, and that county code enforcement acts to bring wineries into compliance if the voluntary measures aren’t effective.

“They are not languishing,” Commissioner Mike Basayne said. “We are, in fact, acting on the violations that we’ve observed.”

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