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Napa County to explore creating wine tasting rules for microwineries

Small-scale Napa County grape growers that don’t have their own production facilities for their wine labels may be closer to being able to offer tastings from their vineyard properties.

Promoters of this allowance for such “microwineries,” three years in the works, have tweaked the proposal to more closely align with county rules for wineries on rural properties going back three decades.

And now the Napa County Board of Supervisors signaled that it is open to considering the idea.

During a March 2 agenda-setting discussion, the supervisors decided to take up the microwinery ordinance proposal later this year but passed on rules that would allow for commercial cultivation of cannabis in the unincorporated areas, according to the Napa Valley Register.

County officials now are working with the supervisors' concerns and gathering feedback from stakeholders such as industry and land-use groups create a draft ordinance to bring back to the board in August or September, Planning Director David Morrison told the Business Journal.

The group that first brought forward the idea for microwinery regulations is Save the Family Farms, launched in early 2019 and now with a couple dozen producer members.

"We're basically saying that if there's going to be a recovery, then let's have it be led by not only the large, existing wires, but let's also take small family businesses, or small family farms. Let's give them an opportunity to be successful,” George O’Meara, group president, told the Journal.

“They have been at it for a long time,” Michelle Bevenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County, told the Business Journal. The group wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors in support of the drafting of an ordinance.

The proposal was first presented to be part of the use-permit streamlining effort Napa County took on in 2019. At that time, the microwinery allowance was for properties as small as five acres, with at least three of those planted to vineyards. That threshold presented a problem for some in the land-use-advocacy and wine business because it was under the 10-acre minimum in the Winery Definition Ordinance, passed in 1990 after a hard political battle.

That higher minimum was part of what was presented to Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group for over 500 local wine producers. The permit streamlining, which went into effect last year, ended up being tailored for a narrow range of permit holders, applying to roughly 30 in the county, according to Michelle Novi, who works with industry relations.

“We’re interested in a process that lessens the financial burden for smaller farms while maintaining the regulatory framework in Napa County,” she said. The trade group also wrote a letter of support of the draft ordinance process to the Board of Supervisors.

Working inside the county’s land-use regulations also sits well with longtime activists.

“One of the things that I'm very pleased to see is that they are now eager to work within the framework of the Winery Definition Ordinance, the WDO, because at the beginning, that was not the case,” said Eve Kahn, a Napa Valley real estate agent who’s been active for decades in local land-use issues. She’s chairwoman of Get a Grip on Growth, a group formed in the 1990s that in recent years is part of the umbrella organization Napa Vision 2050, of which she’s part of the executive committee.

Napa Vision 2050 hasn’t taken a position on Save the Family Farms’ latest proposal, Kahn said. The microwinery group first presented its plan to the group in 2019. The original 5-acre threshold didn’t sit well with the group, Kahn said.

While the activist group hasn’t seen a version of the proposal since August, the presentation this month to the Board of Supervisors was encouraging, Kahn said.

Also encouraging, she said, is Save the Family Farms’ apparent willingness to also work within two other key rural Napa County land-use protections — measures J and P, which require voter approval of certain commercial changes to properties.

“They have done a lot of their homework,” she said.

Kahn said a key issue land-use activists have brought up in past winery proposals that include visitor access still remains: traffic on narrow, winding rural roads.

Save the Family Farms hasn’t made a formal presentation to Coalition Napa Valley, but some members of the collection of major or long-established local vintners seeking land-use-regulation reform have talked with the leaders, according to Tom Davies, general manager of V. Sattui Winery and a member of the coalition steering committee.

“We support the Board of Supervisors’ exploring the idea for small wineries to operate alongside (larger) wineries,” Davies said. “Given the wildfires of 2019-2020 and the pandemic and the long runway for recovery ahead of us, our industry needs operational flexibility.”

Recent estimates put the total losses from just the 2020 Glass and Hennessey fires in crop, vineyards and wine inventory at around $2.3 billion.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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