Counties grapple with winery outreach directly to consumers

Sixty percent of wineries in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County have tasting rooms, compared with 90 percent in Napa County, according to planning officials who have been analyzing winery use permit activity recently and trends in response to a growing number of applications for more direct-to-consumer marketing and hospitality activities where the wine is made.

Sonoma County has approved 439 winery use permits, and of those 152 allow production only; 121, production as well as on-site tasting and events; 111, production and tasting; and 35, just tasting.

“In the 1970s, most were production-only,” said Dean Parsons, project review manager for the county of Sonoma’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “In the 2000s, there were more tasting-room and events applications for wineries, and now all [applications] wineries include tasting rooms and events.”

Winery use permit applications peaked in 2006 and dropped during the economic recession. Applications rebounded from 2010 through 2012 and reached 22 in 2013, with an equal number anticipated for last year.

“A lot of what is approved now are use-permit extensions, because the recession had not allowed them to move forward with the projects,” Mr. Parsons said.

The county allows a one-year extension of such permits, but the Board of Supervisors has been approving multiple extensions, he said.

Wine made in Sonoma County outside city and town lines totals the equivalent of 52 million 9-liter cases annually, according to Mr. Parsons. The top five viticultural areas for production are Alexander Valley, with 12.4 million; Los Carneros, 11.05 million; Russian River Valley, 10.5 million; Green Valley, 6.9 million; and Dry Creek Valley, 6.6 million.

About one in nine wineries outside cities and towns in Sonoma County hold events. Its top growing areas with events are the Sonoma side of Los Carneros, with 543 allowed a year; Sonoma Valley, 519; Russian River Valley, 505; Dry Creek Valley, 417; and Alexander Valley 358. Nine in 10 county-area wineries are outside of sewer districts, with the rest mainly clustered around the Eighth Street East and Sonoma County Airport industrial areas.

Seeking tastes, events?in Napa Valley

For Napa County’s 47 million cases of wine produced annually, most winery permits in the unincorporated areas in the St. Helena viticultural area, followed by Rutherford, Oakville, the Napa side of Los Carneros and Calistoga. There were 24 winery use-permit applications to allow events in 2013, and about 80 use-permit applications are pending, according to David Morrison, director of the county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Department.

Sixty percent of the winery applicants are requesting increases for visitation and marketing efforts, he said.

“As the valley floor has become fuller, there has been more challenging development in the hills,” Mr. Morrison said. “That is potentially creating problems with not enough soil or water for vineyards. As the wine industry continues to grow, it is being pushed into more marginal areas, and that is creating more issues with neighbors.”

Questions from neighboring residents, growers and vintners about impacts on groundwater, traffic and rural character in the form of opposing public-hearing comments and letters as well as appeals of approvals have led the county Board of Supervisors over the past several months to call for better analysis of current conditions and community input. Evaluating and potentially revisiting county policies could become a key directive for county planning staff this year and next.

Messrs. Parsons and Morrison were part of a panel discussion at the Wine Industry Financial Symposium held in Napa.

Applicants seek?permit clarity

What should be kept in mind with conversations about revisions to winery use permit policy is the increasing complexity of the process and the unforeseen costs this is putting on applicants, according to Beth Painter, whose Napa-based consulting firm Balanced Planning represents a number of North Coast projects.

“They need to know how to budget and have clear direction on what is required,” she said.

Any exploration of traffic and its connection to the wine business should consider growth in traffic from residents settling in Napa Valley because it’s a global destination, she said.

Indeed, studying traffic from visits to the county’s hotels and restaurants should be part of the decision on “how much is too much,” said Jeff Redding, whose Land Use Planning Services also represents local projects. He was director of Napa County planning until 2001.

But winery applicants also bear some blame for wars of words over permits, he said. Common problems he sees in projects he encounters are lack of compliance with adopted development standards, incomplete applications, lack of preapplication due diligence such as landslide studies, inadequate biological studies such as at the wrong time of year and lack of advanced planning, realism and neighbor talks.

“Don’t let the county be the one to inform you of what’s going on with a neighbor’s property,” he said.

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