Bill Hocker | Jul 30, 2021Update 9/28/21
NVR 2/18/21: Napa County polishing proposed micro-winery law
Draft Micro-Winery Ordinance
(redline includes its own new seciton to County code and additions to other sections)
Notice and explanation
Comments on the Draft Ordinance are being solicited by Planning Director David Morrison, at firstname.lastname@example.org
, with a comment deadline of 9/3/21
. The the Draft Ordinance and comments will be presented to the Board of Supervisors at a public workshop on 9/14/21
The Micro-Winery Ordinance follows the Small Winery Ordinance
enacted in Feb. 2020. The two ordinances are an effort to make it easier for normal people to get into the winery business in Napa County. The standard process of approving new and modified winery use permits has become so torturous and expensive that only well-heeled plutocrats or corporations have been able to outlast and outspend the community opposition that that can bog down the approvals. That opposition is, of course, due to the potential change that a tourist attraction will bring to the peace and enjoyment of a community living in a rural place. Virtually all requests for new or modified use permits involve hefty amounts of winery visitation and events.
The question is whether additional quantities of small- and micro-wineries will resurect of the low-key authenticity inherent in the Napa wine industry in the 1970's, potentially acceptable to residents adjacent to 4500 rural properties
suitable for micro-winery development; or will they be an initially-more-palatable step-by-step establishment of the community-destructive, mass-tourism event centers that now define the Napa wine industry. In either case, the winery glut and the commercialization of, and tourism industry expansion into, Napa's rural communities shows no sign of abating.
NVR 3/8/21: Nape County will develop rules to allow micro-wineries to offer wine tasting
Video of the 3/1/21 BOS meeting
(discussion begins at 1:33:15)
It was good to hear that the proposal has changed in the last 2 years to stay clear of the WDO. The details, unknown at present, will be critical to insure that these permits won't just provide a cheaper gateway for the wine-tourism commercialization of the rural communities whose residents support agriculture but not the conversion of their neighborhoods into tourist destinations. In a previous proposal
both capacity (30,000 gal/yr) and visitation (25 vis/day) allowed were well above the medians for real wineries in Napa County,
The supervisors in their comments seemed to recognize that the impacts of such tourism intensification should be an important consideration in the drafting fo the ordinance. Sup. Dillon also pointed out the danger of homes being built as micro-wineries and how development standards for homes should also be part of the discussion.
The essence of the ordinance will be to allow home visitation and sales. But the purpose of the visitation should be to sell wine, not to profit off tasting and event fees. I think this is an opportunity to analyze, perhaps for the industry as a whole, how much visitation is actually necessary to sell, say, 5000 gallons of wine a year taking into consideration wine club sales and the increasing use of online sales. There should be a direct quantifiable relationship between the level of visition and the amount of wine produced. Dir. Morrison's Proposal X
at APAC was one indirect attempt at defining that relationship -- it was shot down by a wine industry that knows that the profit to be made from tasting and event fees is a revenue source quite independent from actual wine sales.
NVR 1/3/21: Save the Family Farms makes wine-tasting pitch to Napa County
Several Letters to the Editor from "Save the family farms" folks in the last year:
8/12/20 Leslie Hoopes LTE: The major issues small family farms face in Napa County
NVR LTE 4/6/20: How the pandemic is affecting small family farms
12/11/19 Dylan Rahn LTE: Blood, earth, and legacy
8/6/19 George O'Meara LTE: Your Turn: Leadership, Legacy and Napa's all-star leadership team
7/5/19 Hayley Hossfield LTE: Small family farmers the true legacy of Napa Valley
6/12/20 Ken Nerlove LTE: Why I support “Save the Family Farms”
5/8/19 George O'Meara LTE: Your Turn: “Napaland” - How Napa may become the next Disneyland
NVR 11/3/19: Small winemakers pitch 'Save the Family Farms' to Napa supervisors
Save the Family Farm seems like one more end run around protections of the Ag Preserve and the WDO meant to speed up the conversion of an agricultural economy into a more profitable tourism economy, just as is the Winery Streamlining Ordinance considered by the Supes in October (item 10A here
NVR 12/19/18: Napa Supervisors surprised by deluge of comments on family farm woes and winery rules
Save the Family Farms facebook page
Save the Family Farms on Change.org
Save the Family Farms Committee statement
At the Strategic Plan hearing before the BOS on 12/19/18 several people got up to describe how difficult it was as for small winemakers to survive: those vintners that had a small number of acres of vines that they processed at a custom crush facility or in their barn, but had no means, in an age of consolidated distributers needing large quantities, of actually selling the wine other than inviting people to their farm. The cost of getting a use permit for a winery, a multi-year process at the County, and the cost of actually building a commercial winery was way beyond their means.
The refrain of the small family winery being priced out of the Napa Valley has been fairly constant since APAC
and before, with the discussion about the CEQA small winery exception
. Apparently there are many winemakers out there that have been operating completely off the grid of official county statistics for some time.
The County's winery database of use permits
now has some 500 wineries, not even half of Dave Thompson's Napa Wine Project
database of 1100 Napa commercial wine makers, most of which he has visited and written excellent reviews about.
For me, and perhaps the Supervisors, this is much like the issue of winery use-permit non-compliance
which turned out to be a much more widespread than first thought. The emphasis on the plight of the small family winemakers, operating without a winery permit and depending on "home" tours and tasting to sell their product may be just as big. And now that the County is cracking down on winery non-compliance with a deadline of 3/29/19 for wineries to register to recognize the conditions of their use permits, the many sub-permit wine makers may be getting nervous.
It seems unlikely that the County doesn't know about number of commercial wineries documented in the Napa Wine Project, regardless the Supes surprise as the small winemakers are coming forward. But it is probably safe to say that the impact of those wine makers on their neighborhoods and on the metrics of traffic generation and housing need have thus far been ignorable. Until now.
The Save the Family Farms Committee has produced their own definition of the Small Family Winery
. There are good aspects to the proposal, but the 30,000 gallon limit represents a 50% increase on the median size of existing use-permitted wineries in remote areas
, not really small by Napa standards. And the 25 visitors every day is 4 times the median visitation in remote areas and would present a noticeable commercial presence in most rural (or urban!) neighborhoods.
In 2017 The county floated a Limited Winery Ordinance
but tabled it because of likely pushback. With the county approving one new winery a month, developing a fast-track method of administrative winery approvals didn't seem like a good idea. The specs were even further above the existing median Napa winery than the Small Family Winery.
Actually, the County already has a Small Winery definition
on the books for old existing wineries. It would seem a reasonable template to fit the needs of "Save the Family Farm" petitioners, with the removal of the word "existing". It prohibits tours and tastings, a deal breaker for the Committee I'm sure. But it is worth noting that Screaming Eagle, Coglin, Scarecrow and other very pricey Napa cult wines are all in compliance with this definition - >20,000 gal/yr, no tours, tastings or events. It is possible for a small winemaker to be successful based on the quality of the wine rather than the quantity of the experiences.
In 2014, the first year of doing this website, I proposed a series of solutions attempting to stall the urbanization of the county. One was a "true" family winery ordinance
of my own. The overriding considerations were that such small wineries have minimal impacts and that they not be expandable - that they are meant to allow a proof of concept for budding winemakers and an authentic tasting experience for a limited number of aficionados. If the wine maker wishes to expand, it is time to move additional production and visitation out of the hills. The most important aspect of the proposal was that the permit is given to the owner of the land. If the owner left the land, the permit ended. And that it be the only type of winery allowed in the watersheds going forward, so that these permits are not simply a cheap and easy way to start a large event center project. Protecting the watersheds from corporate and plutocratic overdevelopment is the goal. And prohibiting tourism development of the watersheds means that the properties that are available are less expensive for small family farms. It is a workable proposal for just the vintners that are coming forward now.
One of the other "solutions" that gets at the issue of marketing small brands might be appropriate to mention here: The development of public wine markets
in each of the municipalities specifically to sell the county's small labels, with a boutique stall for each of the winemakers. The TOT would be used to subsidize, or pay entirely, for the cost of rent on the stalls. The marketing of wine by dragging ever more visitors into the rural areas of the County is not a sustainable approach - in terms of protecting that rural character or of dealing with the VMT issues of climate change and global tourism. But small family farms are sustainable - if they remain small family farms.