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Napa County takes first step to rein in wineries that break the law

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After years of wrangling, Napa County took a first step to better police its more than 500 wineries with an updated code enforcement program approved by its board of supervisors on Tuesday.

The board by a 4-0 vote approved a resolution that would revamp the county’s winery enforcement program that has been criticized as ineffective and having no teeth for violators. For example, county officials found in 2014 that almost half of the wineries audited did not comply with code requirements, such as exceeding their production or visitor limits.

The vote comes with increasing backlash to the wine sector that wields considerable political influence through the Napa Valley Vintners trade group and as the dominant economic driver in the county of more than 140,000 residents.

In recent years, industry opposition has been bubbling up, especially over greater traffic on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. In June, local voters narrowly rejected an amendment that would have limited vineyard development on hills and mountains to provide greater protection to the environment.

Read more at https://www.northbaybusinessjournal.com/northbay/napacounty/9036162-181/napa-wine-tourism-regulation

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Wilson family wins Sonoma County approval for 11th winery

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Ken and Diane Wilson’s latest winery, to be built in the heart of Dry Creek Valley, won final approval Tuesday from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, leaving the couple relieved to get a green light 13 years after the project was first proposed.

Culminating a three-hour public hearing packed with accolades for the winemaking family, the board voted 4-1 to deny a valley resident’s appeal challenging a previous county decision supporting the project, which was first proposed in 2005.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents winery-rich Sonoma Valley, cast the lone no vote, saying she was concerned that supervisors have failed to resolve the high-stakes question of over-concentration of wineries, which number more than 440 outside city limits.

“We have yet to grapple with it,” she said, referring to an issue that gained public traction in 2014.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8871075-181/wilson-family-wins-sonoma-county

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A growing Sonoma bursts at its seams

Patrick Hoge, SAN FRANCISCO MAGAZINE
Wine tourism: booming. Mass transit: zooming. Big cannabis: looming. For a once-quiet agricultural region, Sonoma is suddenly an economic engine. And not everybody’s loving the noise.
Liza Hinman lives in two Sonoma County worlds on the same continuum. In one, she is cofounder and chef of the Spinster Sisters, a hip, fun, homey restaurant bringing life and house-made granola parfaits to a formerly run-down part of Santa Rosa. She’s part of a vanguard of entrepreneurial Sonomans who are catering to both locals and tourists through the unifying power of good eating, good drinking, and smartly designed community spaces. In the other world, Hinman, as a mother of three and the wife of a Sonoma native, is unsettled by the changes that have overtaken her hometown of Healdsburg, a once-dilapidated agricultural town of almost 12,000 with a quaint central plaza that has utterly transformed in the last 15 years into a crowded, swanky destination for affluent out-of-towners and second-home owners.
In one world, increased tourism and a well-earned Michelin recommendation are boons for Hinman, a rosy-cheeked, smock-wearing 40-year-old with a broad smile and a gifted touch with locally grown foods. In the other, she finds herself conflicted, avoiding Healdsburg’s downtown of pricey restaurants, clothing stores, and art galleries because of traffic and lack of parking, and shaking her head at the area’s 30—30!—wine tasting rooms. “It’s the ad nauseam conversation that we all have as more and more tourists and Bay Area people discover us,” Hinman says, proffering some of her signature deviled eggs. An East Coast transplant who got her professional start studying and cooking in San Francisco, Hinman knows that it wasn’t long ago that numerous businesses in downtown Healdsburg were shuttered. And she appreciates the tax revenue that supports city services. “It’s our lifeblood here,” she says. “But there has to be a way to find balance, to have a vibrant community for locals and services for tourists.”
Hinman’s contrasting sentiments are echoed across Sonoma County these days, as moneyed visitors from around the world and urban refugees flood into the North Bay in search of the good life. Tourism spending is soaring; hotel and winery development is widespread; and housing prices are climbing fast and approaching an all-time high—all factors that have led to a growing disquiet among longtime valley dwellers. Still a vast Eden of vineyards, restaurants, and resorts, Sonoma maintains a natural beauty and a relatively affordable cost of living that have made it a release valve for the over-pressurized Bay Area. But this restfulness has been disturbed by new strains of anxiety that Sonoma’s laid-back feel, small-town charms, and country roads are being trammeled by too many outsiders with too much cash.
Read more at: San Francisco Magazine | Modern Luxury | A Growing Sonoma Bursts at its Seams

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David Ramey’s Westside Road winery approved by Sonoma County zoning board

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
One of Sonoma County’s most esteemed vintners has cleared a key hurdle on his way toward building a long-sought winery on Westside Road, but he’s bracing for continued opposition from residents who say his plans would place too great a strain on the rural corridor outside Healdsburg, already one of the most popular grape-growing and wine-tasting regions in the county.
David Ramey, winemaker and co-owner of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, received the blessing this week from a majority of planning officials who considered his proposal for a 60,000-case winery and tasting room operation that has been in the works since he and his wife, Carla, bought the 75-acre site of the former Westside Farms nearly five years ago.
While Ramey’s project passed the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments on a 3-to-1 vote Thursday, it could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors by any one of the residents who oppose the project, citing concerns about its scale and impact, including traffic from events and visitors to the public tasting room. Ramey is expecting an appeal, meaning supervisors could have the final say on the matter, barring a court battle.
Read more at: David Ramey’s Westside Road winery approved by Sonoma County zoning board | The Press Democrat –

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Westside Road winery seeking expansion

Frank Robertson, HEALDSBURG TRIBUNE
Whether the rural splendor of Westside Road can withstand its evolution into a high-end wine tasting mecca will be one question in the air at a public hearing coming up in two weeks.
The Sept. 21 county Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) hearing will address renowned winemaker David Ramey’s ambitious plans for a winery with multiple tasting rooms, guest housing, commercial office space and picnic grounds to accommodate more than two dozen annual promotional parties, some with up to 300 guests.
Ramey’s project has drawn outcry from opponents who say it’s simply too much even for Westside Road, one of the most visitor-centric destinations in wine country.
“This is the most intense project ever proposed for Westside Road,” read a letter from the Westside Community Association regarding the Ramey project on 75 acres known as Westside Farms, where a weathered hop kiln building is a designated county historic site.
Besides a new winery and wine cave, The Ramey project includes a tasting room in the old hop kiln building and another private tasting room in the adjacent barn, along with overnight marketing accommodations and parking for approximately 80 cars.
Read more at: Westside Road winery seeking expansion | News | sonomawest.com

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Luxury resort, winery approved in Sonoma Valley

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A proposed luxury hotel resort and winery in Kenwood that withstood court challenges before languishing for more than a decade is again moving ahead following a favorable decision from the Sonoma County Planning Commission.
Despite a vigorous campaign by opponents, the commission on Thursday unanimously upheld design changes to the future inn, spa and restaurant and affirmed that the project has a vested right to go forward.
“Legally we really don’t have a big leg to stand on if we decide this project isn’t going to go through,” said Commissioner Dick Fogg, adding that the design changes were not sufficient to require further review, or delay.
“I think it’s a better design. I like it,” said Commissioner John Lowry, echoing the comments of his colleagues on the 50-room hotel, luxury spa and 125-seat restaurant and bar. A relatively small 10,000-case winery and 11 homes that were previously approved have yet to undergo design review.
Opponents led by the Valley of the Moon Alliance have been fighting the hotel and resort since its inception about 15 years ago, viewing it as part of the steady onslaught of wineries, tasting rooms and events that have altered the face of the picturesque valley and piled more cars onto busy Highway 12.
Read more at: Luxury resort, winery approved in Sonoma Valley | The Press Democrat

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Sonoma County zoning board rejects new Healdsburg winery sought by Oakville Grocery owner

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Westside Road has 29 approved wineries, making it one of the most concentrated winemaking zones in Sonoma County, alongside Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley. Some neighbors have grown increasingly frustrated with the spread of wineries and events in those areas, and county supervisors are expected to return to that discussion sometime this fall.

A proposed new winery in one of Sonoma County’s most popular grape-growing and wine-tasting regions was rejected Thursday by county planning officials over concerns about traffic safety and the high concentration of existing wineries.
The Board of Zoning Adjustments voted unanimously to deny a permit for a Westside Road winery southwest of Healdsburg envisioned by Leslie Rudd, the owner of the Oakville Grocery stores. Rudd’s team plans to appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors, making for another high-profile case in the countywide debate about the spread of wineries and the special events they often host.
Read more at: Sonoma County zoning board rejects new Healdsburg winery sought by Oakville Grocery owner | The Press Democrat

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Here's how big wine gets to avoid environmental rules in Napa

Alastair Bland, KCET

According to Anderson, vineyard managers frequently install drainage systems incorrectly, fail to plant required cover crops to control erosion, incorrectly place deer fences in a way that prevents free passage of smaller wildlife, and use pesticides illegally. She says erosion control measures often fail to work, causing loose sediment to wash into creeks. There it can smother gravel beds used by spawning salmon and steelhead, which have almost vanished from North Bay watersheds. Many biologists have pointed to vineyards as a leading cause of the fish declines.

In 2006, Napa County officials issued a permit for The Caves at Soda Canyon, a new winery in the hills east of the city of Napa. As most such project permits do, the document set strict limits on how the developer could build his winery.
But The Caves’ owner Ryan Waugh allegedly ignored some of these limitations. Waugh dug an unpermitted cave into a mountain, and hosted guests at unapproved ridgetop tasting patios. After county officials became aware of the violations, they ordered Waugh in 2014 to block off (but not fill in) the illegal cave, stop the unauthorized wine tastings and muffle a noisy generator.
Neighbors had complained about the generator’s din, claiming that Waugh had promised years earlier to connect his facility to silent power lines. They’re primarily concerned, however, about the winery’s impacts on local traffic and congestion.
County documents report that Waugh followed through on all orders to correct the violations (something neighbors, who say they can still hear the generator, dispute). Then, Waugh submitted a request for a modification to his permit, and in April, the Napa County Planning Commission voted to approve it. The new permit brings the unauthorized components of his operation into full legal compliance while also increasing The Cave’s annual production limit from 30,000 gallons of wine to 60,000. The decision is a win for Waugh, who has reportedly put his winery on the market for $12.5 million.
Neighbors say that laws don’t apply to people invested in Napa County’s influential wine industry.
“You can just drill an unpermitted cave and have unpermitted tastings, and just get retroactive approval from the county, and get more allowed production than you initially had,” says Anthony Arger, who lives nearby. Arger is concerned that The Caves’ enhanced use permits will lead to a dangerous increase in vehicle use on Soda Canyon Road.
The county’s decision to clear Waugh’s record while allowing him to enlarge his business illuminates what Arger and other community activists say is part of a countywide problem. They argue that Napa County officials, especially those in the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, collude with the wine industry, ignoring violations of local rules, to increase wine production and tourist visits at the expense of the environment and local residents’ health and safety.
Read more at: Here’s How Big Wine Gets To Avoid Environmental Rules in Napa | KCET

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Westside Road residents want to stop proposed winery near Healdsburg, citing safety concerns

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A group of concerned Westside Road residents want Sonoma County planners to halt a new winery proposed for the premier grape-growing corridor southwest of Healdsburg.
Their concerns center largely around traffic safety issues, but they illustrate yet another episode of neighborhood conflict over the spread of the region’s signature industry as county officials prepare to consider policy changes later this year.
The county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments will hold a public hearing Thursday to consider issuing a use permit for a new winery on an approximately 26-acre site at 4603 Westside Road, an area that already contains one of the county’s highest concentration of wineries. As envisioned by its proponents, the new winery would produce 10,000 cases annually and would host 37 special gatherings, including a dozen promotional event days with as many as 150 people. Its events would include no weddings.
County staff members are recommending the zoning board approve the use permit, but the project has received strong resistance from neighbors who primarily cite two sharp turns in the road near the driveway that would lead into the winery. Residents say the turns are too tight and that the project’s proximity to them means it can’t provide sufficiently safe sight lines for motorists. They want the zoning board to reject the project.
Resident Judith Olney, who lives about one and a half miles up Westside Road from the winery site, said the project’s approval would be akin to “playing Russian roulette with public safety.”
Read more at: Westside Road residents want to stop proposed winery near Healdsburg, citing safety concerns | The Press Democrat

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Sonoma Valley growth sparks debate over area’s future

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The “Scenic Route” sign on Highway 12 announces the obvious to motorists heading into the Valley of the Moon. It’s cradled by mountains, dotted with giant oaks, horse ranches, vineyards, remnants of old orchards and the odd water tower.

The road delivers inspiring views of imposing Hood Mountain, its craggy face standing sentinel over a historic route from Santa Rosa to Sonoma that carried stagecoaches and trains before the automobile took over.But today, the two-lane highway is crowded with traffic generated by commuters, residential and commercial development, sightseers and visitors headed to wineries and tasting rooms.

winery map, Sonoma Valley
Winery Expansion on Sonoma Highway 12 (Press Democrat, from Sonoma County PRMD, October 2016.)

The northern arm of Sonoma Valley, between Madrone and Melita roads, is home to more than 40 tasting rooms and event centers that each year attract more than 140,000 people to special events. They could be joined by another half-dozen or more tasting rooms and more than 110 annual special events with 20,000 more people if permits in the pipeline previously approved, but not yet built, are exercised.
The burgeoning wine industry and plans for a high-end luxury hotel, spa and winery off La Campagna Lane in Kenwood have especially drawn attention and opposition while highlighting the impact of development along the county’s busiest wine road.
The growth has set off alarms among rural residents concerned about the loss of agricultural land and the vehicles and noise generated by winery events, especially on weekends. They raise the specter of “Napafication,” the fear that roads will become as clogged as in Napa Valley, where traffic on Highway 29 slows to a long crawl on Saturdays and Sundays when visitors stream to the abundant large corporate-owned wineries.
Read more at: Sonoma Valley growth sparks debate over area’s future