Napa Supervisors to hear arguments on winery event rules

NAPA- The Napa County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing Tuesday to consider changing elements of the Winery Definition Ordinance, the authoritative document that has governed which events wineries can hold and how they can market themselves since 1990.

Some consensus has emerged in the contentious debate in the past six months that the ordinance, in its current form, is too strict for a more modern Napa that is struggling to retain tourist dollars, and that some aspects of it are actually hindering the image of Napa, such as the appointment-only stipulation for wine tastings.

Rex Stults, industry relations director for the Napa Valley Vintners trade association, said many people involved in the debate have cautiously come around to a number of the modifications. Some of the changes would include removing the appointment-only signs and updating marketing rules.

Mr. Stults also said the creation of a special-events permit, or SEP, would allow wineries to hold social and cultural events on the agricultural preserve. It would be a two-year, temporary license, with renewal subject to Board of Supervisors approval.

Despite the slow-coming agreement on some sides, opposition remains.

The Napa County Farm Bureau remains opposed to allowing business meetings or other events on Agricultural Preserve land.

At a recent hearing, former county planning director Jim Hickey said allowing commercial activities on agricultural land "will ultimately undermine ag."

"It’s a one-way door – you can give it away but can never get it back,” he said.

The special-events permit would clear the way for a limited number of weddings and similar events that could increase wineries’ revenue. Mr. Stults stressed that the number of such events would be limited to a yet-to-be-determined number and that the permit system would operate outside of the WDO.

Perhaps the most acrimonious aspect of the proposed changes to the ordinance is whether business meetings would be permitted at wineries and, if so, what constitutes such a meeting.

The vintners association, Mr. Stults said, has shifted its position slightly to favor the inclusion of business meetings, so long as there is a clear definition on what would be allowed. The subtle shift came when the Napa County planning department said that, technically, business meetings were permitted all along.

“Therefore, we’re trying to get further clarification. We want to have a clear understanding of what is a business meeting,” Mr. Stults said.

David Aten, an events planner in Napa Valley, has been among the most vocal proponents for altering the WDO, arguing that every industry - not just the hospitality industry - would benefit from eased marketing rules and events allowances. Wineries would be able to diversify sources of income instead of relying solely upon wine sales, according to Mr. Aten.

Sales for a number of high-end wines decreased significantly in 2009.

He said he and others who support broader changes are begrudgingly agreeing to the proposed changes set forth by the vintners association. Another group, Winegrowers of Napa County, has been supportive of business events at wineries.

Mr. Aten stressed that he has never lobbied exclusively for the hospitality industry, having worked at a winery restaurant and a hotel.

“We came at this not looking at just our problems, but at all the problems in Napa Valley,” he said.

One thing everyone involved seem to agree on is the exhausting nature of the debate.

“Hopefully it’s another 20 years before we talk about changing” the ordinance, Mr. Stults said.

Further research on the potential changes will be submitted by the county staff at the Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting.

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