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Can pair wine with food; critic says 'haves' benefit, 'have nots' go without jobs

NAPA  — Slight changes to the Winery Definition Ordinance were approved last week by the Napa County Board of Supervisors, which voted 3-2 in favor of easing restrictions on how wineries can market themselves and what type of events can be held.

After nine months of debate, supervisors settled on comparatively minor adjustments to the 1990 document that spells out how a winery can utilize its land beyond winemaking.

The main changes to the ordinance include permitting wineries to pair food with wine tastings, the sale of wine-related products at wineries and the allowance of business meetings and retreats – with stipulations.

Business meetings, perhaps the most contentious issue of the debate, will be permitted on the condition that at least half the time of such a meeting or retreat is dedicated to the education and making of wine.

“So, we’re not turning our wineries into convention centers,” said Rex Stults of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. “They’re still wineries.”

Wineries will able to market the food parings as a means of luring customers, so long as the service doesn’t charge beyond cost recovery.

“Wineries are not to become restaurants, but food pairing is a valid means of teaching about wine,” Mr. Stults said.

Throughout the debate, proponents of altering the WDO argued that the document was too strict and hindered individual wineries’ ability to diversify revenue sources amid a bleak economy that saw sales of fine wine drop and tourism numbers plummet.

Those who preferred no changes to the ordinance contended that easing marketing restrictions – such as allowing weddings and business meetings at wineries – would undermine the agricultural preserve.

Ultimately, a balance was struck between the varying interests, Mr.  Stults said.

“This allows wineries in Napa Valley a little more flexibility in marketing, but not at the expense of our agricultural preserve,” he said, adding that efforts to remain within accordance of the Napa County Plan also played a central role in shaping the revamped WDO.  Mr. Stults said, at the end, there was unanimous agreement from the main industries involved in the debate: the Vintners Association, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa County Farm Bureau and the Winegrowers of Napa Valley.

Supervisor Bill Dodd was one of the two votes opposing the changes, saying the adopted changes don’t go far enough in easing the restrictions.

“I feel the road we’re going down, this road is elitist. I think the ‘haves’ are getting what they want, and the ‘have nots’ will continue looking for jobs,” he said at the meeting last week.

“We’re trying to help our whole industry,” he added.

David Aten, an events planner who works with multiple industries in Napa County, had been a chief proponent of loosening the WDO, arguing that allowing wineries to hold more varied events, such as weddings, would create jobs while bringing in more tourists.

“It was always about job creation and job sustainability,” he said.

“What we would have liked to have seen is to give wineries the freedom to use their events permits to sell their wine to whoever they want.”

Mr. Aten stressed that he was not lobbying exclusively on behalf of the hospitality industry, and several wineries he spoke with were supportive yet quiet about some of the changes. He and others who lobbied on behalf of more broad changes said the economic downturn was a key motivating factor.

“In times that are really good, this may not have been needed, but times are bad, so we wanted to help” those who were hurting from the tough economy, he said. “We’re the most restrictive agricultural land in the world.”

Yet Mr. Stults – echoing the supervisors who voted in favor of the changes – said the rules that passed were the best compromise given the multiple and spirited interests.

Initial proposed changes to the WDO would have included the removal of “appointment only” signs for wine tastings and the creation of a special events permit, but those elements were left unchanged.