Tourism or agriculture?
on the web at: http://sodacanyonroad.org/forum.php?p=1493
Bill Hocker | May 15, 2014

This letter is in response to Peter Jensen’s recent article “Pelosi family wins delay of winery project“ on May 8.

The consideration of two new winery projects by the Planning Commission brings up once again the impacts that the loosening of tourism-marketing restrictions in the 2010 revision to the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) is bringing to the county.

As a resident of upper Soda Canyon Road faced with the possible location of a winery-tourism project in my neighborhood, I have become quite sensitized to the concerns of residents, and perhaps some vintners, all over the county that are confronting the same intrusions into the rural life they thought they had found in the Napa Valley.

These projects, the Castelucci Family Winery and Titus Vineyards and Winery, are just this month’s examples of how the development pressures released by the change to the WDO (and the enactment of the State’s Evans Bill in 2008 allowing on-site consumption of wine purchased at wineries) are playing out.

The Agricultural Preserve was created in 1968 in the knowledge that small-scale agriculture cannot compete profitably with almost any other land-use endeavor. The Ag Preserve was set up to drastically limit what Napa County land could be used for beyond agriculture. But developers have always been pressing against the dykes of the Preserve trying to find a way to turn Napa land to more profitable use. American Canyon was created in 1992 to relieve pressure against the rest of the County.

The Winery Definition Ordinance of 1990 was a similar response to the development pressure. Wineries and wine tourism, industrial and commercial activities in any other part of the world, were redefined as part of the agricultural process. The tourism was heavily restricted, but it was a crack in the dyke.

In 2010, the tourism restrictions were eased, to allow “marketing plans” that included meetings and events of almost any kind (short of weddings) and to allow “wine pairings” or the serving of food with wine, allowing the wineries to become in essence restaurants. Combined with the Evans bill, the profitability scales tipped and development proposals have been coming in at the rate of several per month for the last few years.

In the last year alone, proposals amounting to more than 1 million gallons per year in winery production capacity, 300,000 square feet of increased winery area, and 500,000 new visitor allowances have come before the Planning Commission. One new tourism-winery is being added to the county each month and existing wineries are beefing up marketing plans and infrastructure to tap into this new wave of tourism.

Each new project impairs the maintenance of the Ag Preserve. The Titus Vineyard most clearly shows the threat: 3 vineyard acres of the 31-acre property have been removed from true agriculture and are now devoted to industrial and tourism uses. That nibbling away of agricultural land in these developments was best described in one of the 1990 WDO “findings of fact”:


“(f) The cumulative effect of such projects is far greater than the sum of individual projects. The interspersing of non-agricultural structures and activities throughout agricultural areas in excess of what already exists will result in a significant increase in the problems and costs of maintaining vineyards and discourage the continued use of the land for agricultural use.”

The other threat to the Ag Preserve lies in the tourism numbers. The combined allowed visitors (34,000 per year, by my calculation) in these projects, along with the other half million new visitors per year permitted in the last year will all need hotels and restaurants and parking lots and bathrooms — all of which require land and water that currently belongs to the Ag Preserve.

Tourism and agriculture are not mutually compatible, each requiring for different purposes the land and water resources that seem to be in ever shorter supply. If the concessions to tourism made in the 2010 WDO are not removed, the tourism they are spawning will continue to nibble at those resources until the vineyards, like the fishing villages of Cape Cod, become only a prop to justify tourism.

The WDO argued that wineries are integral to agriculture, and that accessory uses (like wine marketing and tourism) were to be subordinated to agricultural use.

I may be wrong, but I would guess that if the tourism components of new projects were eliminated, the wineries would not be considered; that the positions of agriculture and tourism have been reversed from that intended in the WDO, with tourism and marketing profitability driving the decision to build a winery, not the need to process grapes. (Indeed vintners are already concerned that winery capacity has overtaken their ability to supply the necessary Napa grapes.)

It is past time for the Board of Supervisors to decide if Napa County is to base its economy on agriculture, or on the more profitable economy of tourism. It is just that imbalance in profitability that the Ag Preserve was created to guard against in the first place.

Tourism, regulated at its current level, will undoubtedly consume and deface the rural environment that is the legacy of the Ag Preserve, the loss of an environment treasured by residents, vintners and tourists alike. It is time to re-look at the unfortunate decisions made in 2010.

NVR LTE version 5/15/14: Agriculture cannot keep up with tourism-based economy

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