Napa County wineries face more permit scrutiny
After two years of discussion, the Napa County Board of Supervisors is this year developing changes to winery use-permit reporting procedures to make sure the area's roughly 500 wine producers meet the requirements of their operating permits when it comes items like event sizes, production limits and tasting-room hours.
“Compliance is definitely a priority,” said Napa County Fourth District Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza. “Everyone involved must understand that we will enforce use permits. We all want the same thing - a predictable system so everyone understands the goals and what we are striving for. Compliance is a two-way street and includes having a commitment from the wine industry to adhere to permit requirements as well as having consistent and predictable processes.”
At the same time, there is uncertainty in the industry on what this future course of action may be.
“We need clarity to achieve easier implementation and buy-in,” Pedroza said. “Napa residents and wine industry want such a program to be balanced. Our current cumbersome bureaucratic process is not consistent at times, so we are also looking for ways to incentivize reporting and make it more dependable and clear.”
As an example, “if a permit states that a winery has 10 workers, but now has 20, creating jobs and fostering economic growth is a good thing, but figures still have to be kept up to date. Reporting is especially important with regard to winery production, hospitality and hosting activities to see if they are consistent with today's realities.”
David Morrison is director of Napa County's Planning, Building and Environmental Services Department, which issues use permits and is responsible for enforcing and auditing winery compliance.
“If a winery is found to be in violation, our goal is to get them in compliance as soon as possible,” Morrison said.
The intent is to take steps to maintain the high standards Napa already has without creating an entirely new system, he said.
“We have to make sure that everyone is operating under the same rules, so that wineries with violations do not gain an unfair advantage over their competition, which could lead to damaging the brand and image of Napa Valley,” Morrison said.
When it comes to wine production, Morrison said wineries have to report production, crush figures and bottling counts today to state and federal agencies including the state Alcohol Beverage Control Department and the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. However, Napa County does not see this data.
“State and federal agencies can provide the county with aggregate numbers, but not specific data on individual wineries, due to the proprietary nature of the information. Instead, we are looking to have relevant data sent directly to the county by the wineries, where it would receive the same proprietary protection,” Morrison said.
There is concern among some in the county that winery permit rules are not effectively enforced and impact residents as a consequence. At the same time, there is interest in the wine industry to have a fair playing field so some of its members will not continue operating outside the rules.
Ten years ago, Napa County began conducting random annual spot production audits beginning with five wineries, which was increased to 10 five years later, while also including reviews of tours and tastings log books and marketing events. However, with 500 wineries legally established in the county, it would take 25 years to cycle through all of them.
“How effective would it be to audit each winery only once in a quarter of a century? The challenge is to figure out how to provide an effective review. The wine production formula that the county has relied upon in the past doesn't fit some current winery operations, nor can it be easily modified to accommodate everyone - which has led to delays in finding a lasting solution,” Morrison said.
The Napa County Grand Jury's final report in May 2015 noted that audits conducted between 2011 and 2013 showed that 30 percent to 40 percent of the 20 wineries (out of a total of 467 wineries in the county at the time) were not in compliance for one or more permit requirements. These audits were limited in scope and not all of the conditions of approval were reviewed, which provided an incomplete picture of the extent of compliance.
“What we are looking for is an effective reporting framework that addresses a modern wine industry to ensure its compliance with the county's historic policies to protect agriculture,” Morrison concluded.
Rex Stults, government relations director with the Napa Valley Vintners Association, said the county is under pressure to be more forceful when issuing use permits.