In the name of cutting red tape, Napa County supervisors once again demonstrated their fealty to the biggest and wealthiest wineries. The recent approval of the Small Winery Protection and Use Permit Streamlining Ordinance was supposedly aimed at giving small producers a helping hand, but instead primarily boosts big companies that already have immense power.
The grim reality of this ordinance contradicts the public discussion surrounding it, which focused on “small winery protection” and the goal of giving the small, independent producer some assistance in the increasingly competitive wine market.
Helping a couple dozen small wineries join the regulatory status of their contemporary peers is a great idea. Allowing modest increases for currently permitted small producers also makes total sense. However moving towards less transparency does not.
It is incredibly challenging for small producers to compete with huge, established brands while absorbing the high costs of permit modifications. An ordinance letting small producers make minor changes without red tape would have been supported throughout the community.
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But the ordinance adopted by supervisors goes far beyond this laudable goal. After giving a modest leg up to small wineries, the Board of Supervisors then gave the same boost, and more, to everyone else, including the county’s biggest producers. Whether your permit allows 30,000 or 1 million gallons of wine a year, everyone permitted at or above 30,000 gallons per year can increase production by 10% with a minor modification under the new ordinance.
This means a small producer of 20,000 gallons per year can jump up 10,000 gallons, but a winery permitted at 110,000 gallons per year gets an additional 11,000 gallons. A small winery can add a couple employees and maybe a couple thousand cases to their use permit. But the behemoth down the road will use the same process to add 10 employees and 10,000 cases.
Any advantage gained by the small winery is dwarfed by the increase in production and visitation provided to industry giants -- big companies that have already benefited from years of county regulations that rewarded those with deep pockets, time and an army of paid consultants.
The board’s actions just reinforced the inequities and growing divide in the Napa wine industry. The Valley’s biggest and most successful wine companies continue to benefit with the support of politicians they help elect. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering what happened to the Valley we love but no longer recognize.