SodaCanyonRoad | More than a moritorium

More than a moritorium

Bill Hocker | Mar 24, 2015 on: The Winery Glut

[letter to the editor in the Napa Valley Register, March 24th, 2015]

At the March 10 joint meeting of the Napa County Board of Supervisors and its Planning Commission, which began a months-long review of development issues facing the county, a very interesting statement was made by Supervisor Luce following Planning Director David Morrison’s statistical presentation on the county and the wine industry.

The supervisor recalled his role on the planning commission at the time the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) was formulated and recounted its original intent: to boost the capacity and increase the amount of Napa grapes processed in county. He compared the original intent to foster more capacity and compared it to the reverse situation now where there are several times the capacity to process grapes than there are grapes available. He stated that “The justification, frankly, for putting yet another new winery into our Ag resource area is much thinner than it has ever been in the past. And I think that we are really faced with a question of why should this be allowed to continue.”

He indicated that he didn’t have an answer to the question but, frankly, in posing the question he let his feelings be known. He had expressed the same question at the May 20, 2014, joint meeting, with the desire for more numbers from the planning director to provide guidance.

Director Morrison’s presentation here indicated that the current actual wine production in Napa County uses 2.43 times as many grapes as the total current Napa grape crop. The total permitted capacity (the theoretical amount of production currently allowed in the county) would be able to process 5.25 times the current total Napa grape crop.

At the end of his remarks, Supervisor Luce hedged a bit on the need for winery prohibition in the watersheds, but in doing so clarified his stand on their prohibition on the valley floor. (Given the overcapacity argument, I don’t quite see a distinction myself.)

One of the directions given to Director Morrison at the meeting was to set up an ad hoc committee to look at the current WDO and winery issues. The Agricultural Production Advisory Committee (APAC) is to be composed of 17 members from various county constituencies. One of its tasks is to look at what changes can be made in the current WDO to ensure the long-term sustainability of an agricultural economy that is not consumed by tourism. A series of issues were proposed to be looked at: minimum parcel size, estate grape requirement, no-vineyard-loss provision, separation of valley and watershed winery requirements, visitation limits, etc. All might be considered “tinkering” with the ordinance to control the number of new wineries, expansions and visitation going forward.

The firmest proposal to date, an increase of the minimum parcel size for a winery to 40 acres from the current 10, would mean that 2,400 new wineries might be developed in the future rather than the 4,500 currently possible.

What was not proposed was the option, raised by Supervisor Luce, to cease building and expanding wineries altogether. That option should be the first decision that APAC undertakes.

That Supervisor Luce’s proposal seems to have been unconsidered by the other supervisors and by the planning department indicates perhaps political or economic interests that I, as only a concerned citizen, am not privy to. But the supervisor is not naive about the political possibilities in the county, and his proposal is the only real suggestion made thus far to stop the development wave that continues to degrade the character and the substance of the rural, agricultural, small-town life that we all claim to cherish and is my reason to be here. That development wave will eventually bury the vines.

Supervisor Luce’s proposal is a first step to protect the vision of the Agricultural Preserve, made in 1968, for the next 50 years, and it needs a full discussion now.

Hocker lives in Napa.