Caymus Vineyards has a Planning Commission-endorsed road map on how to wrap up a long-running dispute with Napa County over complying with county rules.
The Planning Commission on Wednesday voted 4-0 to recommend a possible agreement between the Rutherford-area winery and the county. The Board of Supervisors could hear the matter on May 10.
“We’re in a different place than we were a year ago and I’m glad about that,” Chuck Wagner of Caymus told the commission.
It’s been a long road for Caymus. The county’s wine audit in 2009 showed the winery at 8700 Conn Creek Road produced 650,000 gallons of wine annually, far above its allowed 110,000 gallons. That amount grew to 1.2 million gallons in 2011 and 2.5 million gallons in 2012, a county report said.
Wagner said during a break in the meeting that the situation involves wine made outside of the county, but bottled at Caymus. Napa County considers bottling as production.
In addition, upon further investigation the county found what it considered to be unauthorized construction.
That led to Caymus and the county in 2013 entering into a Napa County Superior Court judgement to help resolve various issues. Caymus paid the county a $1 million fine. It received the right to produce up to 1.8 million gallons of wine annually.
Meanwhile, the Wagner family bought Suisun Valley land in Solano County near Fairfield with plans to build a winery that will ultimately be able to bottle 5 million gallons annually. Wagner said the groundbreaking should be this spring.
With bottling set to shift to Solano County, Caymus is finishing its negotiations with Napa County. The agreement recommended by the Planning Commission requires Caymus to decrease wine production to the 110,000 gallons allowed in its use permit, but not until 2017 or 2018, when the Solano winery should be built.
“It gives us a chance to adjust,” Wagner said.
Caymus Vineyards could then increase production to 660,000 gallons annually. All wine produced between 110,000 gallons and 660,000 gallons would have to be made with at least 75 percent Napa County grapes.
“It will allow for the growth to happen out of county and keep the core mission focused on their high-quality Napa wines,” attorney Katherine Philippakis said on behalf of Caymus.
Planning Commissioners Jeri Gill and Michael Basayne had mixed feelings about the move.
“I was disheartened to know that production was moving to Solano County along with jobs,” Gill said. “But I also understand the decisions being made by the applicant brings this property and this brand more in line with the vision and really what’s appropriate in that place.”
Other features of the proposed agreement include having Caymus construct a left-turn lane on Rutherford Road and realign the Highway 128 and Conn Creek Road intersection, pay the Rutherford fire Department $50,000, pay $56,000 in housing and other impact fees, demolish five buildings and build a greenhouse.
Napa County would recognize that Caymus has a right existing before the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance to sell wine regardless of where the wine was made, as long as it’s produced by Caymus or Caymus affiliates.
Wagner recalled the Napa Valley wine world in 1972, when he co-founded Caymus along with his parents.
“Back then, we were all too happy to see trucks and cars coming into the valley,” Wagner told the Planning Commission. “That meant we were becoming successful. Today, I think we can all agree traffic has become a problem and there are consequences to success we need to contend with.”
The wine business has played a critical role in taking on these types of issues, Wagner said. But, he said, he’s not certain everyone sees the wine business as playing a positive role in creating a bright future for Napa Valley.
“I don’t think everyone understands what it takes to run a successful wine business today,” Wagner told commissioners. “And I’m worried about what this valley will turn to if wineries continue to face a hostile business climate.”
Suisun Valley has several wineries, and Solano County is trying to raise the public consciousness of its own, much-smaller wine country. County leaders have said that the Wagner Family of Wine’s move to build the Suisun Valley winery near Interstate 80 will help accomplish this goal.
Napa County Farm Bureau President Norma Tofanelli criticized the proposed Napa County agreement for recognizing Caymus marketing events as a pre-Winery Definition Ordinance right. She disagreed that Caymus has this vested right and warned the commission against setting a precedent. Marketing events should be granted as a use permit change, she said.
But Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County, disagreed.
“I’m somewhat astounded right now,” she said. “Napa County Farm Bureau got up here and I guess they want in today’s meeting for you to rewrite history and the pre-WDO rights and how the county has been dealing with this ever since it was enacted.”
That’s an issue to be sorted out by the Board of Supervisors when it takes up the proposed Caymus agreement on May 10.