Sonoma Valley growth sparks debate over area's future

The “Scenic Route” sign on Highway 12 announces the obvious to motorists heading into the Valley of the Moon. It's cradled by mountains, dotted with giant oaks, horse ranches, vineyards, remnants of old orchards and the odd water tower.

The road delivers inspiring views of imposing Hood Mountain, its craggy face standing sentinel over a historic route from Santa Rosa to Sonoma that carried stagecoaches and trains before the automobile took over.

But today, the two-lane highway is crowded with traffic generated by commuters, residential and commercial development, sightseers and visitors headed to wineries and tasting rooms.

The northern arm of Sonoma Valley, between Madrone and Melita roads, is home to more than 40 tasting rooms and event centers that each year attract more than 140,000 people to special events. They could be joined by another half-dozen or more tasting rooms and more than 110 annual special events with 20,000 more people if permits in the pipeline previously approved, but not yet built, are exercised.

The burgeoning wine industry and plans for a high-end luxury hotel, spa and winery off La Campagna Lane in Kenwood have especially drawn attention and opposition while highlighting the impact of development along the county's busiest wine road.

The growth has set off alarms among rural residents concerned about the loss of agricultural land and the vehicles and noise generated by winery events, especially on weekends. They raise the specter of “Napafication,” the fear that roads will become as clogged as in Napa Valley, where traffic on Highway 29 slows to a long crawl on Saturdays and Sundays when visitors stream to the abundant large corporate-owned wineries.

The projects have sparked a debate inside Sonoma Valley over its future, one that comes at a time when the county is having a similar conversation about how to maintain the vitality of the wine and tourism industries while preventing activity that diminishes the rural character of the region.

“I'm very concerned about the growth of wineries, events and tasting rooms in the Sonoma Valley in a couple of different areas,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district is sprinkled with 120 wineries and tasting rooms in the Sonoma Valley and Carneros regions.

Gorin, along with a majority of county supervisors, last year reached consensus on the need for new regulations on what is one of the largest sectors of the local economy - wine-related tourism, which generates more than $1.25 billion in Sonoma County each year.

Supervisors signaled the wine industry will face greater county scrutiny and potential limits on new development and business activity, not only in Sonoma Valley but also north of Healdsburg, along Westside Road and the Dry Creek Valley, which have a plethora of wineries and even narrower roads.

The issue is expected to come back before the Board of Supervisors later this year.

Wine industry leaders say events are a vital tool for local vintners to sell their wines and remain competitive, and complaints tend to be relatively few.

Overall, they say their surveys show Sonoma County wineries and events have high favorability ratings among the public. They fear any large-scale overhaul that restricts events could drive wineries - especially smaller ones - out of business.

“Growth isn't all wineries,” said Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, a winemakers' trade group. “To me, the bigger issue vintners and the community face is how to integrate this growth to protect our rural agriculture.”

Many factors

The wine industry is just one contributor to the traffic on the most scenic part of Highway 12 from Santa Rosa through the Sonoma Valley to Madrone Road.

As many as 6,000 people live along that 12-mile stretch, including 1,000 Kenwood residents and 4,500 residents of Oakmont, a retirement community created in the early 1960s and annexed to Santa Rosa. Highway 12 is their primary thoroughfare, but the two-lane country road also serves as a major corridor for people traveling between Santa Rosa and Sonoma as well as those continuing on to Napa and Solano counties and Sacramento.

State traffic counts show the number of vehicles traveling through Kenwood increased by almost 40 percent between 1993 and 2015, going from an average of 13,000 vehicles a day to 18,100 at the intersection with Adobe Canyon Road.

Traffic actually decreased for a number of years after the recession hit in 2007, but it's gradually been creeping back up, and milelong crawls at evening rush hour near Oakmont are increasingly common.

It's not all about traffic. Sometimes it's the noise from amplified music, lights that brighten the night sky or depletion of groundwater supplies that are the issues for residents who value their country living. In places like Kenwood, they get exasperated with their driveway being blocked, jammed parking lots and visitors walking alongside the road, wine glass in hand, going from one tasting room to the next.

“They're kind of oblivious to traffic, which tends to be pretty fast through Kenwood,” said psychologist John Podboy, who has seen people in twos and threes walking along Highway 12 “obviously drinking, carrying around a glass, not being aware how dangerous that behavior can be.”

A Kenwood resident for 42 years, he remembers a time when there was very little traffic on Highway 12.

“Now it's pretty constant for about 12 hours, from 6 (a.m. to 6 p.m.) more or less,” he said.

Motorists don't tend to stop during the week, when it's more of a drive-by community. But on the weekend it's another story, as people flock to a couple dozen wineries and tasting rooms in the Kenwood ZIP code, where parking can be at a premium.

“It's reached a saturation point, if not exceeded it, especially in Kenwood. We don't need any more wineries,” Podboy said.

But he concedes “better (to have) wineries than condos,” a grudging acknowledgment that vineyards and the wine industry are preferable to what could be in their place.

And wineries have always been a part of the fabric of Kenwood, even before it was founded.

In 1861, William Hood had 160 acres of grapes and a winery on his nearby Los Guilicos Rancho capable of storing 200,000 gallons, according to Dallyce Sand's book “Kenwood Yesterday and Today.”

Some wineries closed as a result of Prohibition, and it took decades for them to make a comeback. By the late 1970s, three large wineries and a couple of tasting rooms had taken hold in Kenwood. Sand recalls area vintners going on promotional tours in the 1980s to tout their wine as being as good as Napa's.

“It certainly paid off, because my goodness, the wine industry in Kenwood has just mushroomed,” she said.

Wine industry's role

Agriculture is a critical factor in preserving open space and rural character. And the wine industry is the largest agricultural sector in Sonoma County, with 60,000 acres of vineyards and a crop valued at $572 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A 2012 study commissioned by the Sonoma County Winegrowers found the wine business pumped $13.2 billion into the county's economy that year and provided more than 54,000 jobs, when including the impact of wine tourism and the indirect effects of spending by workers.

Sonoma County has 447 wineries and tasting rooms in its unincorporated areas, with more than one-third of those approved since 2005, according to the planning department. Its wine industry is second only in California to Napa County with regard to number of wineries, number of winery employees and winery payroll.

Many of the wineries boost business by offering a variety of events from wine-release and winemaker parties to dinners, industrywide events and weddings that can disturb area residents.

The Valley of the Moon Alliance, a group concerned with the impact of commercial uses on agricultural lands, keeps close track of visitor-serving and event permits.

In 2004, the alliance did a study that looked at agricultural parcels from Melita to Madrone roads and along Arnold Drive ending at the Sonoma Raceway. Out of 792 parcels in agricultural zones, there were 33 authorized to operate events on their facilities, with a total of 705 events annually and 115,500 visitors.

In a 2014 update, the organization said 29 new or expanded permits had been added. They boosted the potential number of visitors by another 55,000 annually, a 47 percent increase.

Its conclusion was that the substantial increase has brought Sonoma Valley “to a crisis point.”

“Agricultural land is becoming more commercialized because of all the agricultural tourism and how profitable it is. Where is the limit?” said Kathy Pons, a nearly 40-year resident of Kenwood and executive director of the Valley of the Moon Alliance.

Supervisor Gorin said the alliance's concerns are legitimate.

“They recognize what can happen over 10 years if wine development and growth continues unabated,” she said. “It may drive people away from Sonoma Valley.”

Gorin said the number of wineries and events approved before she took office in 2012 was “sobering” for people living in Oakmont and Kenwood, where a custom crush facility recently came on line across from Oakmont and two new wineries have been approved but have yet to break ground.

“It was before we became aware of the potential for overconcentration and before the sensitivity to wineries and events was raised to the point it is now,” she said.

If those wineries had been up for approval now, Gorin said the number of events allowed would likely have been significantly lower.

Industry responds

Josie Gay, executive director for Heart of Sonoma Valley, which represents 28 wineries in the Kenwood and Glen Ellen area, said she has seen a lot of wineries changing hands and more boutique wineries popping up, but “I wouldn't say it's explosive growth by any means.”

Sessions, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, said events are an important part of stoking direct-to-consumer sales.

“It's a very good way to gain a little more profitability than selling to distributors,” she said. “They (wineries) make maybe 65 cents on the dollar instead of making 40 cents, or less, on the dollar.”

Sonoma County Vintners recently hired an oversight and compliance officer to respond to complaints, help resolve disputes with neighbors and ensure wineries are abiding by the terms of their use permits. Wineries try to coordinate special events to avoid conflicts, Sessions said.

“It's part of our DNA,” she said. “We don't want to do a special event when someone else is doing it.”

But there are industrywide events that can bring an influx of visitors.

The Heart of Sonoma Valley has two events per year, Savor Sonoma on a March weekend where visitors can barrel taste at 17 different wineries, and a Holiday Open House in November where participants can visit 20 different wineries to meet winemakers and mingle in caves and cellars.

Gay said attendance has steadily dropped over the past eight years, in part because more wineries produce their own promotional events.

“The industry in general seems to be oversaturated with large-scale events. The consumer has a broad choice of events to attend in our county and Napa as well,” Gay said, adding that many wineries in her organization have seen fewer visitors the past few years.

“The general sentiment,” she said, is “‘how can we increase visitor-ship?' ”

Richard Arrowood, founder of the Glen Ellen winery that bore his name before it was acquired by Robert Mondavi Winery and three other successive owners, said the most glaring changes in the Highway 12 area have revolved around the construction of new residences, businesses and infrastructure. Wineries and vineyard operations have, with some exceptions, been sensitive to the serenity of the valley, he said.

“Obviously, we didn't want to see the bucolic backdrop of Sonoma Valley be negatively impacted by traffic concerns, yet the importance of tourism to the wine community could not be ignored,” said Arrowood, now proprietor of Amapola Creek Winery, a small, ultra-premium winery in Sonoma.

Other culprits

There also are other culprits contributing to the crowded road. On a Saturday last summer, word of an open house at a lavender farm in Kenwood spread through social media, drawing several thousand people.

There were reports of traffic backing up for a mile in each direction and motorists delayed a half-hour to get through the jam.

It's a far cry from decades before.

When his family moved to Kenwood in 1976, traffic was so light the joke was “you could shoot a gun down Highway 12 and not hit anybody,” vintner John McLeod said.

Today, McLeod Family Vineyards has 30 acres of grapes off Lawndale Road with tasting by appointment only. He doesn't think wineries deserve blame for all the traffic, as much as residential growth in Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley and a general increase in population that affects all areas of California.

“It's all gotten crowded. We have more and more people living in the state,” he said.

News Researcher Janet Balicki and Staff Writers Peg Melnik and Derek Moore contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @clarkmas.

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