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Wine industry should work for transparency

Wine industry should work for transparency

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The discussion of what rules wineries should live with regarding production and visitation limits is complicated. But some salient factors seem self-evident.

The rules should be obeyed. The forthright policy of the Napa Valley Vintners Association is hard to argue with. They say wineries should comply with their use permits or other regulations and, if they cannot or don’t want to comply, they should seek to have them amended. Agreement that the rules should be obeyed is a good place to start. Nobody seems to be willing to disagree, at least not publicly.

Secondly, the rules frequently appear to have not been obeyed. The county’s audit of winery compliance has been anything but transparent. The terms of winery use permits are not visible to the public on the county’s website. The small sample of 20 wineries per year that have been audited have not been publicly named. But we do know that in recent years up to 40 percent of them have been found to not comply. No instances of 100 percent compliance in any recent audits have been reported.

Third, some of the rules would appear to involve factors easy to measure. Volume of wine production and number of visitors and events look like objective facts. And they are facts the wineries certainly must know. Wine production is taxed by the federal government, so there have to be auditable production numbers readily available. Almost every winery charges visitors for tastings, and it is doubtful they often host events without a charge. So the business records of the wineries contain the data from which they should be able easily to extract the numbers to show whether they are complying with limitations on visitors and events.

Fourth, compliance with rules can be expected to improve if there are consequences for non-compliance. It seems to work very effectively with health department regulations of restaurants that can be shut down for non-compliance. And shutting down is almost never required because the publication of a failure to comply pressures an immediate response. But the names of non-compliant wineries are kept secret from the public.

Publishing the names of non-compliant wineries would seem a modest, but beneficial, consequence of failure to comply. Similarly, requiring full compliance with existing rules before accepting an application to change the rules would seem to encourage compliance, without an undue burden. And, in extreme cases, a temporary suspension of visitation rights would get any winery’s attention and not be a death sentence.

As to the permitting of additional new wineries, there also appear to be a few unarguable facts. Is there any doubt that existing wineries in Napa Valley have the present installed capacity to process 100 percent of the wine grapes produced in the valley? On the contrary, the regulatory problem seems to be in preventing Napa Valley wineries from unduly relying on grapes from non-Napa sources.

So incremental wineries are not necessary to preserve and enhance Napa Valley agriculture. They are proposed and built for other commercial reasons than protecting local agriculture. Those commercial reasons are certainly legal, but we should be clear that the incremental wineries are commercial enterprises, not agricultural industry protectors. They are wine marketing outlets and event center enterprises first, and unnecessary processors of Napa Valley grapes second.

As to traffic problems, the argument is made that the visitors to a new winery will not be incremental drivers on Napa roads; they will be drivers who would be here anyway to visit other wineries if the new winery were not built. The traffic problem, we are told, is not new visitors the new winery brings into the valley; the problem is created by people already living and working here.

That does, however, conveniently overlook the obvious fact that the new winery/event center will create incremental jobs for people working there and also for people providing services to the enterprise. Those new jobs will be filled, at the margin, by new travelers on Napa roads, apart from the visitors who come to the winery. And, it is clear that, given the cost of housing here, many of those incremental employees will come from outside the valley and will add to traffic congestion as they go to and from work. It is not possible for added commerce of a staffed and operating new winery to occur without an impact on traffic. Failing to recognize that is disingenuous sleight of hand.

I am not personally opposed to wineries. Since moving to Napa 20 years ago, I have worked part-time in a number of wineries. I believe the wine industry is well served by complying with existing rules, as the Napa Valley Vintners Association recommends, and by openly embracing changes in the way wineries relate to the county.

The industry has a great store of well-deserved goodwill and can best continue to enjoy the widespread public support that it has by working to open up public visibility of its operations. Sunshine will inoculate against uninformed criticism and, perhaps, unwanted new regulation.

Workman lives in Napa. He served as the foreman of the 2014-15 Napa County grand jury, though the views expressed here are his own.

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