Sonoma County winery faces record $172,000 fine for alleged vineyard work violations


A Geyserville winery and its billionaire owner face a record fine from Sonoma County agriculture officials who contend the Alexander Valley company destroyed nearly an acre of land this summer through hillside grading and conducted other unpermitted work.

The $172,282 fine issued July 10 to Skipstone Ranch owner and technology entrepreneur Fahri Diner is the largest ever levied by the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures. It’s more than triple the previous high penalty, a $50,000 penalty in November 2019 related to disruption of wetlands.

Skipstone Ranch is appealing the three violations related to the fine; there are tentative plans for a late October county administrative hearing.

n a report detailing findings of their investigation and notification of the violations, county agriculture officials documented an industrial grading operation on a steep hillside along the northwestern edge of the Skipstone Ranch property off of Geysers Road. This resulted in nearly identical terracing to the adjacent hillside grapevines on the 200-acre estate vineyard property. Ag officials also accused the property owner of disallowed grape plantings elsewhere on the property.

A spokeswoman for Skipstone Ranch acknowledged the work was similar to adjacent terracing for grapevines, but she said the construction was tied strictly to repairs related to the October 2019 Kincade fire that burned 77,000 acres in Sonoma County. She said the winery had no intention of planting additional grapevines.

But ag officials, wine industry insiders and Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district includes the Alexander Valley region, suggested the company, which has been in business for more than 10 years, should have known better.

“It makes you wonder what the landowner was doing, in his decisions, and what his management team was doing,” Gore said. “Anybody who is in the wine business knows it ain’t 1970 no more; you don’t get to terraform.”

A key justification for the size of the fine was the county’s determination that Skipstone officials knew the work they undertook ran afoul of county environmental regulations, according to the notice of violations obtained by The Press Democrat.

“The actions, whether intentional or not, have egregious impacts on the watershed, and multiple people in the community were asking me what the heck is going on, and why they were allowed to do that,” Gore said.

These are the first violations alleged against Skipstone Ranch winery, agriculture officials said, but they offered no leniency due to the “severity” of them and the “safety hazard created by the unpermitted work.”

In a prepared statement, Susan Barnes, a communications consultant retained by Skipstone, expressed disappointment in county Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith for his decision to reject “our efforts to resolve the matter quickly, amicably and without the need for a hearing.”

Tina Wallis, a land use attorney representing Skipstone Ranch, confirmed the company had offered the county a settlement, but she would not reveal the amount of money.

“In the wake of the Kincade fire, emergency work was needed to address serious fire damage to the property — especially on a small section of a steep hillside,” according to the statement provided by Barnes, of Barnes & Co. “In the face of the fire’s devastation, safety for our people and our property was our only concern.”