A controversial plan to build a 10,000 case winery and creamery, tasting room and event facilities on a remote stretch of Sonoma Mountain Road comes before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Tuesday in its regular afternoon session in Santa Rosa. But more than just a wine-and-cheese permit may be under discussion, as the applicants were involved with a controversial non-permitted event earlier this month in rural Knights Valley, on Highway 128 between Healdsburg and Calistoga.
UPDATE: The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the project on Nov. 15 at their regular session. Supervisor Susan Gorin dissented. See the story in the Press-Democrat.
The 55-acre Sonoma property, known as Belden Barns, is located at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road, 1.5 miles east of Sonoma Mountain-Pressley Road. The owners of the project, Nate and Lauren Belden, have been producing pinot noir and other wine grapes since they purchased the property in 2005, though they made Sonoma their full-time home only since 2012. They also produce “farmstead” food products, including vegetables, fruit, eggs and cheese.
Critics of the proposal – which include the Sonoma Ecology Center, Valley of the Moon Alliance and Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road among others – say the project “would permanently damage the environment, create and exacerbate dangerous road conditions and threaten the critical wildlife corridor that runs through the Sonoma Valley over Sonoma Mountain.” They expressed concern that approval of the project would “establish a dangerous precedent” for commerical operations on Sonoma Mountain Road, as being the first of its kind.
As Friends of Sonoma Mountain, the groups filed a lawsuit against the County in October of 2014, for approving the project’s permit application. The suit was dismissed in July 2015, pursuant to a settlement agreement that would include an Environmental Impact Report, which was issued last month.
The purpose of the Nov. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting is to conduct a hearing on the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the merits of the project. The EIR that Belden Barns is presenting shows modifications from its original proposal, reducing the number of events from 12 to eight and minor changes in design.
The Belden permit application asks for retail sales and tasting of both wine and cheese, and permission to hold eight “agricultural promotional” events a year, including seasonal wine and farm events of up to 200 people, club member pick-ups of under 100 and a summer “wine and farm event or wedding” of 150.
Overall, the Beldens say the project objective is to “create an economically self-sufficient and viable business growing and selling wine and farmstead food.” In a December 2015 article in Made Local magazine, Nate Belden calls opposition to the project part of “a knee-jerk reaction to the wine business right now,” and said the plaintiffs in the 2015 lawsuit “misunderstand the scope of the proposed project.”
“The cheese operation would fit in a trailer,” he is reported as saying, adding that challenging it as being too large “is analogous to thinking that someone knitting gloves to sell on Etsy is the same as Levi’s building a huge clothes factory.” The Beldens were unable to respond to request for comment by press time.
Both Nate and Lauren Belden were featured speakers at a Nov. 4 event in Knights Valley called Harvest Summit, a one-day “exclusive gathering of innovators, influencers and tastemakers” that included 300 “transformative leaders in technology, media & entertainment, food & wine and consumer products.” Among the other speakers were Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore and his wife Elizabeth Gore, State Senator Mike McGuire, and Jon Sebastiani of Sonoma Brands. The event began with a “guided mediation” and concluded with a happy hour.