SodaCanyonRoad | Benjamin Ranch Appeal

Benjamin Ranch Appeal
Bill Hocker | Jun 2, 2022 on: Benjamin Ranch Winery

Another 9 acres of vineyard land gone?

Update 6/12/22
NVR 6/11/22: Napa County returns Benjamin Ranch winery to Planning Commission

Update 6/2/22
In perhaps a first, an approved project under appeal at the Board of Supervisors is being voluntarily remanded back to the Planning Commission with the consent of all concerned. From the BOS 6/7/22 agenda:


From the Staff Agenda Letter:

    "Staff, Appellant and Applicant jointly request a remand to the Commission for purposes of preparation of an advisory report addressing: 1) changes proposed by the Applicant to the winery’s design and operational characteristics; (2) consideration of the new BAAQMD Air Quality and GHG Guidelines that took effect in April 2022; and (3) consideration of the Governor’s recent Executive Order pertaining to well permits and the extreme drought. The Commission’s advisory report will be considered by the Board prior to rendering a decision on the appeal. Upon issuance of the Commission’s advisory report, the appeal hearing will be publicly noticed at least fifteen days in advance of the hearing before the Board.

It seems there will be a public Commission hearing to air all concerns on the new design, but that the PC (perhaps to their relief) won't actually vote on the revised design. It's an odd tweak to the normal course of things, which, along with a look at how new state regulations will impact all winery approvals going forward, will make for an interesting process.

Update 6/2/21
NV2050 6/2/22: The Appeal: Benjamin Ranch

After being continued last Nov., the Benjamin Ranch Winery appeal will apparently be heard by the BOS on 6/7/22, although no notice has yet been sent by the County.

The new owner, Treasury Wine Estates, is proposing a reduction in visitation and production output in a letter to the BOS: 87,150 vis/yr down to 37,000, and 475,000 gal/yr down to 300,000.

No mention is made of downsizing the physical facility proportional to the reduction, or of the 61 employees needed to operate it. While it may be that a smaller operation is closer to Treasury's vision, it has become almost routine that developers come in at the last minute with a reduction in visitation to make approval more palatable, while doing nothing to reduce the physical size of the project. Will the 9 acres of arable land removed remain the same? Requesting changes in visitation or output capacity in the future becomes a much easier lift when the physical capacity is there to accommodate it.

The project is being opposed by the community group Keep Rutherford Rural, led by Micheal Honig. They are asking for an EIR on the project (as is now required for Mountain Peak). A request for a continuation would not be a surprise given the changes to consider.

The County's project documents are here (changes not yet reflected)

Even with the reductions, this will probably be the largest new winery in the Ag Preserve in two decades. It has become incumbent upon the BOS, in an era already experiencing water shortages in the Napa Valley sub-basin, already experiencing the disastrous effects of climate change that are the product of continuing urban expansion, to be much more diligent in vetting the impacts of new development than they have been in the past. A negative declaration of environmental impact by county staff is not enough. An EIR should be required for all new projects and expansions in the County, and doubly so for a project of this scale.

There is a case to be made that to survive the climate catastrophe humanity faces, all GHG-producing development should be put on hold until a solution is found. A more thorough vetting of the impacts of each development should be the very least that our civic leaders do to show due diligence in confronting the environmental Armageddon that lies ahead.

Update 11/18/21
NVR 11/18/21: Treasury Wine Estates to acquire Frank Family Vineyards
Press Release 11/17/21: Treasury Wine Estates Announces Acquisition of Frank Family Vineyards
Variety 11/17/21: Rich Frank’s Frank Family Vineyards Sold for $315 Million to Treasury Americas

What to make of this surprise? Negotiations for the sale of the property were obviously happening at the same time as the the project was coming up before the Planning Commission, if not before. So much for testimonials of character witnesses at planning commission hearings.

What does it mean for the Benjamin Ranch Winery? Treasury already has ±760,000 visitor slots/yr and ±8 million gal/yr of capacity in its better-known Beaulieu, Beringer, Stirling and Etude Wineries. Another Napa brand may be an added profit source, but spending $20+ million on another venue to add a bit more capacity or a few more tourists to its Napa holdings could be a questionable investment. No mention of physical expansion, only brand addition, in the press release. Will the appeal still be contested in March? Stay tuned.

What it does show is the ongoing absorption of Napa brands under large corporate ownership, and the further erosion of any "local" authenticity to the Napa name as the industry continues to move toward a wine-themed Las Vegas named "NAPA!". Most buyers won't know or care that a wine and its glitzy winery are owned by an Australian Corporation. But oenophiles will probably see it as a bit more tarnish on the Napa brand and continue to seek their cult discoveries elsewhere.

Update 11/13/21
NVR 11/12/21: Hearing over proposed, large Napa Valley winery could be delayed
NV2050 on Benjamin Ranch 11/9/21: Here We Go Again: Appeal of the Frank Family/Benjamin Ranch Project in Rutherford is Gaining Support
SCR 11/11/21To the BOS on Benjamin Ranch

Neighbors are appealing the approval of the Benjamin Ranch Winery by the planning commission last May. The appeal will be heard by the Board of Supervisors on 9/14/21 [now continued to 11/16/21].
Notice of Appeal Hearing
Appeal Document (from KRR website)

It would seem that all of the submissions to the administrative record needed for the Benjamin Ranch appeal were made in the first of the two Planning Commission hearings and that further presentation at the second was seen as unnecessary.

Given the Board's pro-development makeup (see how dismissively the Board treated the resident-farmers surrounding the Scarlett Winery), opponents of the Benjamin Ranch Winery must also be anticipating an appeal loss and, hopefully, already preparing their CEQA litigation.

Will this be the project that finally convinces the "responsible" but silent resident growers and vintners of Napa County that their way of life is also threatened by the tourism expansion that much of the wine industry and the county government have embraced, a conviction long felt by the rural residents not tied to the wine-tourism economy? Probably not.

In any case, much like global warming, it is a bit late to undo the urban development trajectory undertaken in the county over the last 20 years. The hundreds of approved, as-yet-unbuilt projects will continue to bring more workers and tourists needing ever more housing, infrastructure, commercial and hospitality development. Urbanization, like global warming, is a cyclical process with each individual event amplifying the occurrence of future events.

Which is not to negate the obligation that each individual community has to resist the urban development that threatens the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their neighborhood.