Making policy in a vacuum of information is a dangerous practice, particularly when that policy involves the county’s signature industry.
There has been a great deal of talk lately about the proliferation of wineries, with some high-profile projects attracting unfavorable attention by alarmed neighbors. These projects have become the focal point of a growing sense of unease over various issues: increasing traffic, dwindling groundwater, overstretched affordable housing stocks, and a rising dependence on the tourist dollar.
Amid this climate of change and uncertainty comes the report this month that eight of the 20 wineries surveyed in the annual audit by county planners admitted to having violated some element of the county’s strict rules for operating in the Agricultural Preserve: exceeding production or visitor limits, holding more special events than permitted, or failing to adhere to the requirement that at least 75 percent of grapes used in a winery be grown in Napa County.
The report seemed to suggest that the county’s wine industry has gotten too big too fast and is playing too loose with the rules. It appeared to underline calls for a reexamining the existing rules, and perhaps even slapping a moratorium on new winery development until officials can take a look at the cumulative effect of having hundreds wineries on the ground in such a small county.
So it was that we met this week with both county officials and the Napa Valley Vintners to discuss the audit and the future of the wine industry.
What we learned is how little we really know of how the wine industry is working and affecting life in Napa County.
We do not have a recent comprehensive study, for example, of traffic patterns to determine why congestion seems to be getting worse. Is it tourists? Winery workers? Or commuters unrelated to the wine industry altogether? We do not know.
We don’t have a clear idea, according to the county, how much production capacity all the wineries represent and how much is actually in use at any given time.
We cannot easily break down how much of that capacity is inside the Ag Preserve, and, therefore, subject to the stringent county rules, and how much is in cities and industrial clusters, where regulation is looser.
We don’t even know exactly how many wineries there are. Napa Valley Vintners has 500 members, but not all of those are active, and that excludes corporate wineries. The real number is in dispute, and the best anyone can say is there are more than 400 in existence, from tiny garage outfits to huge factories, with 100 or more permitted but inactive or yet to be built.
The Vintners say they are doing everything they can to make sure members are adhering to their use permits, but requirements differ from winery to winery depending on when it was approved and its exact configuration, making it confusing and expensive to sort out who is permitted to do what. Nor is the organization equipped to enforce regulations: It can encourage and support compliance in an effort to prevent the industry from getting a bad name, but it cannot sanction members who break the rules, whether through ignorance or malice.
Nor do the Vintners even have a clear position on the future of the industry. Vintners staff and leaders tell us they have the same diversity of opinion internally that we see countywide, from the laissez-faire end that advocates ever more wineries to those that think enough is a enough and there isn’t room for even one more.
There are several efforts underway to correct this absence of information. Planning director David Morrison is collating what data we do have to see if we can answer some fundamental questions. A traffic study is in progress. And the supervisors plan a public forum this fall to gather information and opinions on the direction of the wine business.
The Napa Valley Vintners, meanwhile, are undertaking their first-ever long term strategic plan, looking at where they would like the industry to be in 30 years. This process could help generate some consensus within the industry and allow the Vintners to be an effective player in crafting new regulation and shaping future growth.
We agree with county Planning Commission Chairman Bob Fiddaman, who told us this week that there may very well be a need to “moderate” the growth of new wineries, but we need to do so with more facts and fewer assumptions. This is not something we can afford to get wrong.