NVR 3/20/17: Split Napa County Planning Commission approves Raymond Vineyards changes
On Mar 15th 2017 the County Planning Commission, after years of presentations, approved modifications to the Raymond Winery use permit. It has been a tortured process involving the recognition and allowance of years of permit violations, the clash of two iconically different players in the valley, and the impacts of the subordination of wine making to wine marketing in the economy.
The use permit application has pitted Raymond's owner, the flamboyant good-life entrepreneur Jean-Charles Boisset, against his next-door neighbor, mega-grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer, in a symbolic battle for the soul of Napa County. As has happened in countless, but increasingly intense, planning commission battles over these last years, the forces for more tourism development have won over the preservation of Napa's agricultural heritage, and a few more acres of vines get paved over for buildings and roads and parking lots.
This is the second Raymond proposal to come before the Commission. The first in 2014 ran into concerted opposition not just from Beckstoffer, but also residents on Zinfandel Lane faced with ever increasing traffic to the winery. The proposal was dropped after 2 continued hearings. Beckstoffer continued to challenge Raymond on non-compliance independently of the use permit request.
Raymond defused Zinfandel Lane opposition in this second project by buying an adjacent property, giving the winery direct access to Hwy 29 and dividing the service, visitation and employee traffic load into two access points. It also added another entertainment venue to the complex. It was apparently enough to placate residents of Zinfandel Lane who did not turn out for this meeting, although it did rile the residents of problematic Whitehall Lane junction just across Hwy 29 from the new Raymond driveway.
Mr. Beckstoffer was not assuaged by the new proposal, and, although he did not make the impassioned defense of the ag preserve that he has made in previous hearings, his lawyer made a CEQA-esque presentation in preparation for the appeal and, no doubt, court challenge ahead. The commissioners voted 3 - 2 to approve. Comms. Basayne, Scott and Gill seem to be reliable pro-development backers so far this year. Comms. Gallagher and Cottrell seem to be taking the position that where there's controversy on projects extra concern must be given to the negative impacts. I wish that all of the commissioners were willing to make the effort to balance the lives of impacted residents, the potential future impacts on the rural character of the county and on the integrity of the concept of the Ag Preserve, against the increased profits of individual applicants. (Comm Cottrell in her dissent made a strong argument against the precedence of "recognizing and allowing" non-compliance
that this project embodies.)
As reported in the NVR article, Comm. Scott repeated a statement often used in these hearings to justify pumping up winery tourism:
"The marketing of wine has changed dramatically and direct-to-consumer sales and relationships are what create wine club members and purchasers of wine. Frankly, I don't think a lot of our wineries would survive without the marketing events they need to establish those customer relationships."
Given the impact that this assertion is having on the number of tourist venues being proposed and approved in the county, and the impact that the increased tourism will have on our resources, environment, infrastructure, and the rural quality of life that is the hallmark of the county, someone should be asking if tourism is really necessary to the survival of the wine industry. What percentage of the wine industry is dependent on at-winery sales to survive? Why are so many wineries able to survive with very little or no winery visitation? Isn't it only new entrepreneurs, who must poach customers from established brands for the finite quantity of Napa wine available, that must rely on d-t-c tourism marketing because they are too small to be distributed? Are those new brands simply being approved because they increase the tourism draw to the county? Are there other methods to promote the sale of high-end wines besides the destructive invasion of mass-market tourism into the county?
Of course, Raymond is not a startup needing the tourist trade to kept it afloat in post 3-tier world. It is a mature and successful business acting on the reality that there is more money to be made in entertainment than wine. The Ag Preserve was created in the knowledge that there are many enterprises more profitable than making wine, and that controls were necessary if an agricultural economy were to survive. Raymond has flouted those rules to increase profits. And several acres of prime Rutherford acreage has been lost to roads and parking lots needed for its several tourism venues. Tourism, and the urbanization necessary for its success, is hardly less a threat to agriculture now than the housing business was in the 1970's. The dissenting commissioners were right not to recognize, allow and increase the changes that Raymond has requested.