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Napa County wineries dive into wildfire prevention after big Glass Fire losses

The Glass Fire last fall has made wildfire prevention and protection a higher priority than project permit processing for Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group that represents over 500 wine producers and related businesses.

The group has set up three task forces to tackle the problem, so that the local industry doesn’t face another conflagration like the one that inflicted an estimated $1 billion in damage to a few dozen wineries and restaurants plus potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in losses from many unpicked grapes and a skipped vintage for a number, according to Rex Stults, head of the trade group’s industry relations.

One task force is looking at how vintners can help themselves, tackling a growing problem of vintners’ hearing that they are losing coverage or will have to pay significantly more, and looking into fire prevention and protection technologies.

“Insurance companies are either dropping clients that are up in the hills, let's say, or the rates are just going through the roof,” Stults said. “People are freaked out about that.”

A second task force is exploring fire protection in the county, whether the county should continue to contract with Cal Fire or develop its own rural district, like Marin County’s.

A third task force is looking into what can be done to reduce the fuel for wildfires, such as dead trees from past fires or from felled trees during utility maintenance work. In conjunction with a presentation on the Napa County Firewise Foundation’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan expected before the Napa County Board of Supervisors in April, Napa Valley Vintners also recommended three things the county could do help prevent more big blazes:

  • Install automatic fire-detection cameras to report flare ups as they happen.
  • Front about $7 million estimated to implement the foundation’s plan.
  • Appoint someone in county staff to spearhead fire-prevention efforts.

Sonoma County has installed fire cameras, starting with nearly a half-million dollars' worth of technology in fall 2018.

Frustration with Sonoma County winery events policy process

After a seven-year effort to gather public input from the wine business and the public on regulating winery events, the county of Sonoma is asking for more input. The most recent workshop on a county ordinance was held Feb. 18.

But some said there’s been too much comment and not enough action since the county in 2015 formed a working group of wine industry and stakeholders such as neighborhood groups.

“The county continues to kick this down the road by asking for more and more feedback,” Padi Selwyn told the Business Journal. She leads a group called Preserve Rural Sonoma County. “And we keep telling them the same thing. The wine industry tells them the same thing, and the neighbors and the concerned residents who are impacted by these events tell them the same thing.”

A repeated message from her group is they want the rules to address noise, traffic and drunk drivers, regardless of whether vintners call what brings visitors to their properties a “winery activity” or a “winery event,” Selwyn said.

But that distinction is critical to understanding the way the wine business has evolved in recent years in the North Coast and what will keep these operations contributing to the regional economy, according to Michael Haney, executive director of trade group Sonoma County Vintners.

“The wine market has changed in the past five, six years,” Haney said. “Direct consumer now is critically more important to our wineries, especially, the very small wineries who can't get wholesale representation in New York or Florida or Texas — they're just too small. So selling directly to that consumer is the lifeblood of that winery.”

That’s why his trade group offered the county four years ago a set of definitions to inform the forthcoming winery events ordinance. Basically, it defined “winery activity” as trade-related, such as hosting wholesaler representatives, key wine buyers and other professionals for tastings, dinners and other events not open to the public. And the group defined “winery event” as weddings and other events that are not directly tied to sales and promotion of the winery, an activity that Sonoma County agricultural zoning currently allows.

“Ag-zoned areas are zoned for agriculture, and wineries need to not only process product but then need to sell the product,” Haney said. “Every time a winery applies for a use permit, they do traffic studies. The county has its own experts who review such things, and (officials) approve projects or send the permits back for reductions (of requested events or visitors).”

Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said his staff is preparing the draft winery event ordinance to have it ready to present to the county Planning Commission in May, with a tentative time frame to take it to the Board of Supervisors in August.

“We don’t want to regulate other ag uses with the same uses that wineries do,” Wick told the Business Journal. “We would not have the same scrutiny for dairies, for example.”

The county also has been working for the past few years on evaluating winery permit applications through advisory boards for the geographical areas that have generated the most concern: Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road in Russian River Valley. These advisory boards are a first stop for projects such as a new winery or change in an existing use.

The Russian River Valley advisory board has been more challenging to launch, Wick said.

“Westside has more of a schism between Westside Road residents and the wine industry,” he said. “Westside owners tend to prefer not to have any more wineries out there.”

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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