George Caloyannidis | Jul 18, 2017
If a municipality wanted to preserve the ambiance of a single-family neighborhood, it wouldn't rezone it to residential high-rise. Over a short period of time, homeowners would sell to developers at a profit and the area would experience a fundamental transformation.
In Napa County, whenever a small winery pleads hardship, officials accommodate it with higher use permit limits of production and visitations. They say: "We all love small wineries. We must do everything to support them." Who can possibly argue with that?
But there is a problem. Even when wineries have been operating in gross violation of their use permits, their plea for survival becomes their passport to riches. Just like that, even without proof of hardship, the value of the winery is often doubled and tripled and sold within weeks.
Further proof of how this policy incentivizes small wineries to disappear from the supposedly intended idyllic landscape into big investor portfolios, is the current rampant winery consolidation activity, all fueled by the county's policies marketed by its disingenuous rhetoric as compared to its actions.
I often visit the northern foothills of the German Alps, dotted with small towns, forests and meadows where a dozen or so cows of small dairy farmers graze. These farmers make a living with milk, cheese, honey and schnapps. They are prohibited from increasing their grazing lands by clear-cutting their forests, a long view policy that provides them with a decent living but keeps the value of their holdings to levels not attractive enough to corporate takeovers.
Small farms are preserved in harmony with forests and crystal-clear streams. When visiting the region one is captivated by the agricultural serenity so beautifully preserved since 198 years ago, when it was memorialized in Beethoven's 6th symphony, so appropriately named: “The Pastorale.”
Meanwhile, the wine lobby myth our supervisors have bought into that wineries cannot make a living without direct sales has now mushroomed to 59 percent of total revenue and is fueling the market of runaway hotels and traffic congestion their drinking and merchandising tasting rooms generate.
Just over the Alps from Italy's Alto Adige to Sicily, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic in Spain, from the Languedoc to the Loire in France, from Germany's Rhineland to Austria's Burgenland, the direct sales model even for the thousands of wineries producing fewer than 8,000 gallons is an aberration. Instead, one finds their wines around the globe from Los Angeles to New York, Paris and London. Such marketing takes hard work, but it is enough to provide a decent living generation after generation, not just for a decade or two and then off to the Riviera.
Making a decent living from a "small" winery in the Napa valley means Maseratis and Teslas in the garage, government-assisted denuded forests, soiled streams and clogged highways. Sadly, it is us in our state of Napathy who allow the damage. Instead of voting for the right candidates, we let them displace us with second homers and luxury commercial rents.
To top it all off, the supervisors are scheduled to hear a "limited winery" ordinance that will "streamline the process" of approving "new small and/or family-owned wineries" producing a staggering 30,000 gallons. In the process they will shut the public out the door by installing a wine Czar to dole out permits without environmental review or public hearings. The problem is that 261 of the county's 510 existing wineries - more than half of them - produce less than that, 209 of them produce fewer than 20,000 gallons and one quarter of them produce fewer than 15,000.
Traditionally, existing wineries have enjoyed more, not fewer privileges than new ones. No one in the right mind believes the county's smoke screen that new wineries will enjoy this privilege while old ones will be compelled to undergo full review. It is so patently unfair that the furry paws can no longer hide beneath grandma's dress.
Potentially, in excess of 2.5 million more visitors to existing tasting rooms could be added to the 3.5 million who visit us each year and 8,000 vineyard acres could replace forests in the process. This does not even include the un-quantified hundreds of potential new wineries - those supposedly covered by the ordinance -- waiting to join the gold rush.
Within a decade, this devious under-the-radar effort by the county will have replaced forest green with the only green it is beholden to and will have silenced the Napa Valley Pastorale once and for all.
NVR LTE version 7/18/17: Love the small wineries?