Napa, Sonoma counties revisit policies on ‘microwineries,’ vintner events

What happens on rural winery properties has been controversial in Napa County for decades and increasingly a hot-button issue in Sonoma County. Now both counties early this year are tackling new approaches to how such operations are regulated.

Elise Nerlove, co-owner with her father of 20 acres of vineyards on the eastern slopes of Napa Valley and tiny wine brand, sees hope in a recent regulatory nod for adaptation of Napa County’s rigorous rules for winery projects to ease the process for small operations.

For four years, she has been one of the public voices for Save the Family Farms, a group of local farmers that currently make their small-scale wines off-site and claim that the current permitting winery permitting process is affordable only for larger vintners. The Napa County Planning Commission on Feb. 2 recommended approval of a “micro-winery” ordinance.

If adopted by the Board of Supervisors, potentially in March, the ordinance would create a new category of wine producer between the home-occupation permit and a conventional winery. Here would be the proposed criteria for microwinery use permits:

  • Produce 200 to 5,000 gallons of wine annually.
  • Wine must be made with 75% of the grapes coming from the property.
  • Have no more than 5,000 square feet of facilities, including caves.
  • Hold no marketing events.
  • No more than 10 round trips to the property daily, including those by employees, visitors and vendors.
  • Tours and tastings would be limited to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Don’t see a use permit modification or amendment for two years.
  • Only allowed in Agricultural Preserve and Agricultural Watershed zoning.
  • Approval by the zoning administrator, rather than the Planning Commission, unless controversial.
  • Sunset the ordinance in three years unless amended, extended or re-adopted.

The definition of what a winery is and where one can operate, particularly in Napa County’s world-renowned vineyard areas, led to the adoption of the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance.

After concern at a hearing last fall about whether these micro-wineries would actually make wine at the property or continue to use custom wineries elsewhere, the Planning Commission on Feb. 2 recommended that the limit be called “production,” rather than the previous term “production capacity.”

“We understand the county’s concern that they want production to be happening on site,” Nerlove told the Business Journal. “It is the intention of our members to use their own winery.”

And many of her group don’t plan to max out the production limit.

“Most of the members and myself will be much lower, mostly in the range of 1,000 gallons. So the county could permit 50 micro-wineries and it would be 50,000 gallons, which is one medium-sized winery. We’re talking about the smallest of the small here,” Nerlove said.

Over time, the micro-winery effort has morphed into providing a template for small vintners to set up production without seeking too much production capacity and visitation that would result in costly consulting, engineering and legal fees for traffic studies and environmental review for septic and other upgrades, she said.

The permit application would be the same for micro-wineries as for conventional wineries, but the micro-winery limits could help the effort become one that costs hundreds of thousands dollars rather than millions of dollars.

The micro-winery ordinance has received nods from trade groups such as Winegrowers of Napa Valley and Napa Valley Vintners. The latter had raised concerns about on-site production last fall.

“There has been broad community support to streamline the use permit process, especially for extremely small wineries,” said Michelle Novi, industry relations and regulatory affairs director for Napa Valley Vintners. “One thing that has become increasingly clear in the last few years is that moving through the Napa County use permit process is extremely time consuming and expensive. We support a process that continues to uphold the Winery Definition Ordinance and the tenets of the Ag Preserve to make ag the highest and best use of the land but streamlines the process in terms of the number of meetings required and the process to obtain a permit.”

Meanwhile in Sonoma County, its Planning Commission is set to revisit the draft winery events ordinance at a virtual meeting Feb. 17. The county and industry advocates have been going back and forth on the matter for six years, with long delays after the wildfires and during the pandemic.

One of the key changes that has coming in the most recent draft of the ordinance is defining “business activities” separately from “events,” according to Michael Haney, executive director of trade group Sonoma County Vintners.

“This is not about big parties,” Haney said. “We tell people that vineyards they see when driving around are not landscaping. That’s how we feed our families. Our wine community says what we need is a clear set of definitions.”

One of the key arguments the trade group has made is that hosting wholesaler and retailer representatives at the winery for a lunch or dinner and having consumers come to the property to pick up wine is notably different for the resilience of agribusiness from holding weddings, concerts and related events.

“Across the nation with wholesalers there is a massive constriction, so many smaller wineries if they want a distributor in another state they can’t get them,” Haney said. “That’s why marketing directly to the consumer is so vital. If you want to hold a charity event or political fundraiser at the winery, that is another matter.”

However, some aren’t sold on this change in definitions. Preverve Rural Sonoma County is reiterating what it told the Planning Commission when the draft ordinance was last year, in June 2021.

“We want to clarify what has been the county position for the past 15 years, that parties are events,” said Marc Bommersbach, a group member, wine grape grower and part of the Westside Community Association. “Trade meetings are fine, but if they are after hours and serving foods, it is the same impact, regardless if it’s the trade or the public. A trade meeting during day with winetasting is fine, but when it turns into an event, it needs to be addressed.”

The group views wine club pick-ups, harvest parties and similar activities as events.

“Creating carve-outs for certain types of events that are not subject to the limitations in use permits, particularly when there is little if any practical difference in impacts between such types of events, will create a compliance nightmare,” the group wrote to the Planning Commission last year.

The organization also wants the county to specify where wineries can be located, perhaps tailored to the concentration of vintners in a given area: 20-acre minimum parcel size, 18-foot minimum access road width, no outdoor amplified sound and a density standard of no more than two facilities in a half-mile.

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 or 707-521-4256.

Correction, Feb. 14, 2022: Michelle Novi is industry relations and regulatory affairs director for Napa Valley Vintners.

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