Regulation of Napa and Sonoma winery production and visitor growth enters new phase

Sonoma County is returning to the challenge of managing winery events, while Napa pursues streamlining the winery use permit process.|

Napa and Sonoma winery regulations in progress

Napa and Sonoma counties are closer to resolving some key issues that for years have been simmering and at time boiling over on how to regulate the growth of wine business operations.

While Sonoma County government is returning to consideration of what winery events are allowed in rural areas after three years of interruptions to manage recovery from massive wildfires and legalization of cannabis, Napa County has just entered its second year of ramped-up action on winery use permit violations and adjustments for how small wineries are handled.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 28 is set to get its second look at an ordinance that creates a new category of use permits for small wineries, streamlines how all winery permit applications are handled, and makes it easier for more production facilities to be built in the south valley industrial area.

The goal is to allow smaller-scale requests, called minor modifications, to be considered administratively, by county staff or zoning administrator, rather than discretionarily by the planning commission or the supervisors. Such requests include increasing employees by a few, upping allowed production by 10% or up to 30,000 gallons a year, adding covers over existing crush pads, installing electric vehicle charging stations, swapping out existing permanent wine storage tanks while keeping the same production level, changing days of operation yet leaving total visitation the same, and any use permit change in Napa Valley Business Park.

Because of public controversy over expansion of winery production and visitation, a number of permit applications have been kicked up to the Planning Commission for consideration. Environmental laws would still apply under the streamlining plan.

David Morrison, county planning director, told the supervisors Jan. 14 that winery permit requests heard before the planning commission can cost applicants as much as $100,000 and take up to 18 months, versus $500 and a month or two under the proposed procedural changes, according to the Napa Valley Register.

Napa Valley Vintners, a trade association representing 550 wineries, said progress toward tailoring the permitting process to the type and scale of the project is laudable.

“Napa County’s use permit process has been a source of frustration for applicants, staff and decision makers,” said Michelle Novi, associate director of industry relations for Napa Valley Vintners. “The new streamlined process provides increased clarity on the overall process for modifying an existing permit and strikes the right balance of administrative review and business certainty while maintaining the necessary CEQA review.”

Some Napa County vintners feel left out of the county’s proposed small-winery policy. They are producers that make their wines at custom production facilities. While California’s licenses for alternating proprietor wine producers (type AP-02) allow for tastings at locations other than the production facility, the county’s Winery Definition Ordinance requires a winery for tasting operations in vineyards. That’s because an intent of the law is to protect the agricultural character of the valley, with the grape growing as primary focus of business operations in the agriculturally zoned areas.

“If you’re a small family winery and you meet the requirements to build a winery, then you need a big checkbook,” said George O’Meara, president of Save the Family Farms, a 3-year-old group of vintners with vineyards but not wineries. It can cost several million dollars to build a rural Napa County winery these days. “If you’re doing 1,000 to 2,000 cases of wine a year, we never found an economic model where you can recover the cost of that kind of investment.”

The group floated the idea to county planning staff of a “microwinery” category of use permits, starting with 200 gallons a year, allowed under a home occupation permit, up to 7,500 or 10,000 gallons annually, or a cap of about 3,100 cases a year.

Such a permit category was mentioned as an idea by planning department staff during an October progress update for the Napa County Board of Supervisors. Advocates of the idea plan to work with county staff to flesh out a policy proposal early this year.

One idea Save the Family Farms is floating about reducing traffic to tasting at microwinery sites is to give permit applicants incentives to consolidate car trips to the property, O’Meara said. One solution possibly could be for an applicant to have a designated pick-up location in a less traffic-stressed location then ferry tasters to the property in a van, rather than having each driving to the vineyard.

“So now you have one vehicle, one impact, one round trip,” O’Meara said.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in late 2016 called for county staff to develop an ordinance that would provide decision makers on the county board of zoning adjustments and planning commission with guidelines for considering applications involving winery events at new or existing facilities in the unincorporated areas.

Then came the October 2017 wildfires, after which county permit staff was absorbed with fast-tracking thousands of building permits to rebuild burned homes and other structures around Santa Rosa and in Sonoma Valley. The statewide legalization of pot for recreational use in late 2016, taking effect at the beginning of 2018, diverted county planning staff to tackle the question of what cannabis operations would be allowed in unincorporated areas.

Two years ago, the winery trade association Sonoma County Vintners drafted recommended definitions, differentiating winery events from activities. The board of supervisors is expected to get an update on ordinance progress next month, with further action happening perhaps by summer.

“Lunch at the winery for distributor representatives and consumers picking up wine for a club is business activity,” said Michael Haney, executive director. “To have a wedding at a winery is an event.”

The issue of traffic generated by consumer trips to wineries has been a hot-button issue in Sonoma and Napa counties for several years. Sonoma County wine industry trade groups hosted local government officials and planning staff last fall to explain why such events are necessary. Napa County planning staff noted the change in winery marketing in the past two decades, with an emphasis on direct-to-consumer sales and visitor experiences at the estate.

But the question of traffic and overconcentration of such activities, even in downtown areas, has spurred a density limit in Healdsburg and a moratorium in the city of Sonoma.

One proposal that is being floated for managing winery permits in rural Sonoma County is citizen advisory committees, which would get a first look at applications and make recommendations to applicants and decision-making bodies such as the planning commission or board of supervisors. Such a committee has been operating in Dry Creek Valley for a couple of years, and such groups are being considered for two other areas with winery-visitation concerns: Sonoma Valley and Westside Road in Russian River Valley.

Westside Community Association is advocating for a forum rather than an advisory committee, according to board member Marc Bommersbach.

“We don’t need another layer of government,” he said.

The group has been concerned about seven applications for tasting activities along the popular thoroughfare for wine tourists, bike tours, and bike and runner races. There are 33 permitted wineries along the road.

“Things have slowed down in the past couple of years,” he said. “Maybe the market is realizing that the county permitted too many tasting rooms, with 100% over what the 2020 general plan had assumed.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at or 707-521-4256.

Napa and Sonoma winery regulations in progress

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