Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After languishing for more than a decade, a luxury hotel resort and winery in Kenwood is again moving forward, bolstered by new owners and prior approval from the county that appears to pave the way for construction.
The 50-room hotel on a plateau overlooking the Valley of the Moon — along with a luxury spa, 125-seat restaurant and small winery — was the subject of a bruising land-use fight a dozen years ago before being stalled further by the recession.
To opponents, the Resort at Sonoma Country Inn, as it’s now dubbed, epitomizes the steady onslaught of new wineries, tasting rooms and events that are changing the face of the picturesque valley, piling more cars on to busy Highway 12, which averages more than 18,000 vehicles per day in Kenwood, according to state traffic counts.
“It is something that is going to have an impact for sure,” said Kathy Pons, president of Valley of the Moon Alliance, a community group. She worries not only about traffic, but the hillside resort’s visibility and light emanating from it at night.
Read more: Sonoma Valley luxury resort and winery moves forward despite opposition | The Press Democrat
Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Sonoma County vintner has agreed to pay $579,700 to settle water code violations stemming from the release of muddy pond water into a Valley Ford creek that supports spawning fish, state officials announced Thursday.
Steve Kistler (Kistler Vineyards) became the focus of enforcement action after officials traced the April 2013 sediment discharge to Bodega Highway property the longtime vintner owns east of the historic Watson School.
Officials said Kistler directed an employee to pump water from a partially constructed pond into a second, smaller pond, which then overflowed, spilling an estimated 739,910 gallons of turbid water into a tributary of Salmon Creek.
The water appeared so milky that officials with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and other investigating agencies at first surmised that the source had to be a dairy, said Stormer Feiler, an environmental scientist with the water board’s North Coast region.
He said the environmental impacts may have lasted as long as six days and likely killed juvenile coho salmon and steelhead trout living in the creek.
Read more at: Sonoma County vintner Steve Kistler to pay more than $500,000 to settle creek pollution case | The Press Democrat
NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL
Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines, one of the world’s largest producers, said it has cut water use at its dozens of wineries and thousands of acres of vines worldwide by 31 percent and plans more big cuts in the next five years.
The maker of brands such as Kendall-Jackson, La Crema and Cambria on Sept. 7 released its first sustainability report, showing efforts since 2008 and laying out targets for 2021. It’s something that 92 percent of the world’s largest companies now publish regularly, according to Netherlands-based Global Reporting Initiative. GRI developed sustainability standards in the late 1990s now used in 90-plus countries.
“My family has long been at the forefront of responsible winegrowing with a decades-long commitment to environmental stewardship, innovation in energy and water management, and caring for our people and communities,” said Katie Jackson, vice president of sustainability and external affairs at Jackson Family Wines. “Today’s wine consumers are passionate about sustainability and support wineries that share their values, so I am truly excited to reveal the details of our progress and our ambitious five-year goals in this inaugural report.”
Jackson also has created what’s said to be the wine business’ largest portfolio of solar electricity generation — 6.5 megawatts’ worth installed at nine wineries, according to the 29-page report. And to store some of that for use when the sun’s not shining, the company put in 8.4 megawatt-hours of Tesla Powerpack stationary batteries. Jackson wants to produce enough electricity at its locations to offset half the usage in five years.
The company also installed low-water barrel and waterless tank sanitation systems by Tom Beard Co. of Santa Rosa. Tanks are cleaned via high-strength ultraviolet light. Barrels are automatically scoured with water that’s sanitized and reused up to three times, saving 700,000 gallons of water and also reducing energy needs for heating water.
The number of gallons required to make wine — called “water intensity” — plummeted 41 percent to 5.4 gallons per gallon of wine last year from 9 gallons of water in 2008. Jackson plans to cut winery water intensity by another third by 2021, or around 3.5 gallons per gallon of wine.
In the vineyards, Jackson installed sap-flow sensors by Fruition Systems to irrigate only when vines really need it, cutting irrigation water use by 25 percent.
Read more at: Jackson Family Wines cuts water use by 31%, pledges more by 2021
Alec Peters, THE KENWOOD PRESS
At a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, some residents of Sonoma Mountain Road challenged the findings and analysis of a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) prepared for the Belden Barns winery and creamery project.
The Belden Barns development proposal, the first of its kind on Sonoma Mountain Road, is asking the county for a use permit for a facility that would process 10,000 cases of wine and 10,000 pounds of cheese. There would be public retail sales and by appointment tastings, and eight agricultural promotional events a year with 60-200 attendees.
Current structures on the property would be torn down, and 15,851 square feet of new buildings would be constructed – a production facility, tasting room, and employee housing unit.
The 55-acre property is located at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road, about one and a half miles east of the Pressley Road/Sonoma Mountain Road intersection.
The voluminous DEIR concluded that any environmental impacts could be reduced to a “less than significant level” with the implementation of mitigation measures, a finding that speakers at the July 19 Board of Supervisors meeting took issue with.
Specifically, speakers said that no efforts could mitigate the road safety issues on Sonoma Mountain Road, a 7.5-mile, two-lane road that is narrow and windy in places, and considered one of the worst roads in Sonoma County.
In addition, some speakers questioned the hydrology analysis of the DEIR and whether it accurately represented the project’s impacts on nearby water sources.
Also discussed by the public and board was the DEIR’s analysis of alternatives to the project as proposed, including eliminating the tasting room or having it be off-site, such as in Santa Rosa or Rohnert Park. Another alternative under review is one that eliminates the events component.
Throughout the entire time since the Belden Barns first filed their use permit request in 2012, a number of neighbors have been concerned about future development in the Sonoma Mountain Road area if Belden Barns was approved. Those concerns were voiced again at the July 19 hearing.
“Please keep in mind there are 16 vineyards in the immediate area that are in line to follow the Beldens,” said Donna Parker, who lives right across from Belden Barns. “And why not? They can make more money right where they are. So the precedent setting nature of this proposal cannot be ignored.”
The hearing on the DEIR was held to receive oral comments on the document. County planners and an environmental consultant have been receiving written comments as well. The next step involves responding to all the comments and bringing a final EIR back in front of the Board of Supervisor, who at that time will consider the overall merits of the project as well, likely this Fall.
That hearing will mark the second time the Board of Supervisors has been asked to approve the Belden Barns Project. By a 4-1 vote in November of 2014, the board approved the project. First District Supervisor Susan Gorin voted against issuing the use permit.
A group of Sonoma Mountain road residents, the Friends of Sonoma Mountain, soon filed a lawsuit against the county. In June of 2015, a settlement was reached, which required that an EIR be conducted. The settlement set aside the board’s initial approval of the project and dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” a legal term barring Friends of Sonoma Mountain from suing again on the same claims.
Source: The Kenwood Press – Belden Barns environmental review questioned
Padi Selwyn and Judith Olney, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE
With 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits with 60 more in the pipeline, we have reached a tipping point. Since 2000, there has been a 300% increase in the number of wineries built, exceeding the General Plan assumption of 239 wineries by 2020.
More info at preserveruralsonomacounty.org
Last month’s winery events study session by the Board of Supervisors was a step in the right direction, as local officials try to balance wine industry interests with a growing backlash by concerned citizens. Property owners expressed concerns that environmental degradation, unruly crowds, loud noise, traffic safety issues and congestion on narrow roads are destroying tranquil rural character and contributing to the Napafication of Sonoma County.
But it’s clear that this is going to be a long process, with new ordinances projected for by Spring 2017. There are many more meetings to be held, and input by the Planning Commission needed. Meanwhile, the wine industry continues lobbying for fewer restrictions, while the overflow crowd of concerned citizens in attendance sent a clear message to county officials that it’s time to rein in winery development and limit the number of promotional events.
As an example, the wine industry continues to advocate that the county categorize events by attendees or by sponsor. Unfortunately, merely labeling a dinner-dance as a “distributor meeting” does not reduce the noise, long duration drinking, or the potential of impaired drivers on rural one-lane roads. This re-naming of high impact promotional and hospitality uses – such as winemaker lunches or dinners – as “tasting room or business activities”, is a thinly veiled attempt to exempt these events, food service and accommodations from environmental review and use permit conditions required to reduce the impacts to less than significant.
Read more at: Sonoma County Limits on Wine Industry in the Works
Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A majority of Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voiced support for new regulations on one of the largest sectors of the local economy — wine-related tourism — a move that signals the likelihood the wine industry will face greater county scrutiny and potential limits on new development and business activity.
The consensus came about during a first-of-its-kind four-hour study session on the growth of the county’s signature industry. Supervisors agreed the county needs to act, citing widespread concern among residents about the increase in wineries that double as event centers and commercial impacts on roads, resources and the character of rural areas.
“I grew up in Dry Creek Valley. I’ve been to weddings and parties at vineyards, but it’s a different day now,” said Supervisor James Gore, who represents the north county, including Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. “This is from a guy who people say is owned by the wine industry.”
Supervisors Susan Gorin, Efren Carrillo and David Rabbitt joined Gore in calling for crackdowns on wineries found to be holding unauthorized events, with Gore and Rabbitt calling for a so-called “three-strikes” rule for wineries that repeatedly break the rules.
All four said they also are concerned about the cumulative impacts of winery development, and an increase in events in recent years that has worsened traffic, drained water supplies and added noise in rural neighborhoods. Of the 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits, 291 sites are allowed to host events.
The next move could include the drafting of new regulations that could limit such activities in the future, while balancing the needs of the wine industry. Planning commissioners and supervisors would need to sign off on any final rules.
Read more at: Sonoma County supervisors signal support for limits on wineries, events | The Press Democrat
Will Parrish, SONOMA VALLEY SUN
For at least two decades, Sonoma County officials have sided with the wine industry in nearly every major political dispute. The reason? The industry dominates the county’s economy – and financially dominates county election campaigns.
Last spring, Sonoma County supervisors Efren Carrillo, James Gore, and Susan Gorin traveled to Sacramento to meet with some of California’s highest-ranking regulatory officials: California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross, Secretary of Fish and Wildlife Charles Bonham, senior staff members at the State Water Resources Control Board, and State Water Resources Control Board member Dee Dee D’Adamo.
The subject of the closed-door session was a pending drought-related emergency order governing water use in four sections of the Russian River watershed, which the state and federal governments had deemed crucial to the survival of the endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. According to Supervisor Gore, in an interview with me last year, the specific focus of the conversation was to determine “what we could do to achieve the goal of water in the creeks for coho.”
Soon after, the Water Board announced the terms of the regulatory order, which spans 270 days – and remains in effect as of this writing. It applies to an estimated 13,000 Sonoma County residents. It forbids watering of lawns. It places limits on car washing and watering residential gardens. It does not, however, place mandatory limits on water used by irrigated vineyards, which are arguably the main recent cause of the iconic fish species’ perilous decline in the four areas in question.
The failure to regulate the wine industry outraged hundreds of local residents, who vented their opinions in public comment sessions at a series of public meetings held by the Water Board last year. Ironically, based on statements by the Water Board’s D’Adamo, the three elected Sonoma County representatives may have had a role in preventing exactly the restrictions for which these residents advocated.
In a 2015 public meeting, a Mark West Creek resident asked D’Adamo why the wine industry was exempt from the order. D’Adamo noted that “the county” had requested that the regulations not cause “an economic impact.” In a later interview with me, D’Adamo echoed this statement. “Our target is not irrigation [for wine-grapes] that provides an economic benefit,” she said.
Eventually, a slight majority of vineyard operators in the four watersheds (71 out of roughly 130 at last count) voluntarily committed to reducing their water use by 25 percent, relative to 2013 levels. Many onlookers question the efficacy of this voluntary effort, which they note lacks oversight. Meanwhile, one of Sonoma County’s largest wine corporations, Jackson Family Wines, agreed to pump 2.3 million gallons of water from a reservoir serving a pinot noir vineyard into Green Valley Creek. To many residents and environmentalists, though, this episode involving the Water Board reflects an elementary truth of Sonoma County’s modern power structure: The wine industry receives constant support from Sonoma County policymakers in every major political battle, even as it invades neighborhoods and pollutes the environment.
Read more at: Under the influence? How the wine industry dominates Sonoma County election campaigns | Sonoma Sun
Staff, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL
Napa and Sonoma counties are in the midst of reviewing how they handle rural winery projects amid increasingly vigorous opposition.
Both counties are part of a public-policy discussion happening in a number of popular West Coast wine tourism regions, such as Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Wine business advocates contend that marketing of the high-end beverage has changed dramatically in the past decade, with tighter bottlenecks in traditional distribution channels and thus more need for direct-to-consumer sales efforts. Project opponents contend that wine tourism and greater production are choking rural roads with traffic and transforming the quiet rural environment, and a number of wine business operators aren’t following existing limits on production and visitation.
Opposition has brought winery project processing to a near halt in Napa County in the past few years and led to high-profile fights against projects in Sonoma County, such as celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s unsuccessful plan. Wine business groups have been proactive in providing ideas for reforming the project-review process to protect right-to-farm provisions as well as land-use protections, particularly the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.
Read more at: 2015 review: Napa, Sonoma struggle with winery events | North Bay Business Journal
Krista Sherer, SONOMA WEST TIMES
The contentious Dairyman project hit an obstacle in September with the response from the Sonoma County Regional Parks denying access across the Joe Rodota trail for the project. Residents and community groups throughout Sonoma County have opposed the project from the beginning, voicing that the large-scale winery and event center would not only violate zoning to the trail drastically effecting traffic, harm the ecosystem to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and negatively influence the overall character to the rural charm of West County.
In a Sept. 17 letter from Sonoma County Regional Parks (SCRP) Director Caryl Hart to Permit and Resource Management Department’s (PMRD) Supervising Planner Traci Tesconi, Hart wrote that the land owner currently has no legal rights to cross the trail and crosses at the county’s sufferance.
Read more about this project at: Proposed Dairyman Winery and event center corked for now – Sonoma West Times and News: News
Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Napa County Board of Supervisors began grappling Tuesday with the politically contentious issue of how to better regulate winery expansion to limit the congestion that critics contend has turned this agricultural valley into an overrun tourist playground.
The board started to debate proposals put forth by a 17-member citizen advisory committee and further recommendations by the county’s Planning Commission, as well as an analysis of the items by county staff. Overall, 22 public hearings have been held in the past nine months.
Board members did not vote on any regulations, but instructed staff to further work on the proposals. Supervisors hope to adopt new rules in the next year that will bring some clarity to the future of the wine industry, which generated $1.6 billion in visitor spending last year while snarling the county’s planning process in time-consuming arguments over winery permits. It will continue the debate Jan. 5.
The controversy in Napa echoes an ongoing debate across California’s Wine Country. Sonoma County has formed a task force to study the problems associated with winery development and events, while other counties, such as Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, also are tackling related issues on wine tourism.
Read more at: Napa mulls restrictions on winery expansion | The Press Democrat