I want to applaud the grand jury for its recommendations for wineries ("Grand jury wants more winery audits," May 29). For the grand jury to tackle this sticky topic in a valley whose economy has put most all of its eggs in one basket is heartening. And unlike the author of the May 31 letter "Don't punish the many because of the few," I do not consider 30-40 percent noncompliance "a few." A few would be 1-5 percent, not on average over one third.
Back in the 1960s, when I first came to the valley, until now wineries have morphed from agricultural entities to industrial production facilities with destination-style tourist centers that are not designed to "protect" agriculture in the Napa Valley. It seems only with a new head of the Planning Department and the public outcry have the Board of Supervisors been willing to address the erosion of the Agricultural Preserve and consider reining in the tourist industries' rampant abuses.
I fully support the legitimate agricultural needs of farmers. However I do not see how 467 (Napa County database) or 603 (Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) wineries do not utilize all the grapes that might be grown in the valley. Are we here to preserve agriculture or to encourage more destruction of vineyards to make room for ever more or bigger tourist centers? The issues are complex but the onslaught has been swift and I am encouraged by Planning Director David Morrison's proactive approach.
I also do not see how an audit of existing wineries every five years "punishes" anyone as long as they are abiding by existing laws and their use permits. The abuses range from signage that advertises "Open 10-5" at wineries that are not permitted for "public tours and tastings" to those exceeding production as permitted to illegal discharge of wastewater.
Some violations are minor but some are not. The current system of only auditing 20 per year and only responding to complaints does not seem to be keeping up with the transgressors. Even state agencies designed to protect air and water quality have been using kid gloves in dealing with violations.
I personally like the idea of wineries receiving a letter grade for compliance and safety like restaurants do as it is more of the carrot and less of the stick approach. The county is reluctant to levy the kinds of fines that would act as a true deterrent -- most wineries do what they want now and pay the fines as a cost of doing business -- if they get caught.
Agriculture and the wineries that support agriculture allow us the luxury of living in this beautiful valley that is not yet papered over in concrete. More wineries does not more agriculture beget; when the carrying capacity of the land, water and air is exceeded, "more" brings death and destruction. Existing wineries are forced to compete in an ever more competitive marketplace because the pie is being sliced into ever finer pieces.
I hope the Agricultural Protection Committee incorporates the grand jury's recommendations into its final report to the Planning Department.
And while I agree with Rex Stults when he says "Our constant position is all businesses -- not just wineries -- should be following all relevant laws and regulations," I hope that he will agree that those out of compliance give the vintners a black eye and they should be the first to support stricter policing.
The wine industry has enjoyed a "hands off" approach that is not working. Most recognize that allowing a high level of spoilage is not in anyone's interest and most importantly that of the many legitimate and law-abiding vintners.
And while I am at it let me add a very personal remark about those sheets on poles that some wineries are using to attract attention. Not only are they tacky and ugly -- they reinforce the Disneyland approach that most of us would agree is better off in Disneyland.