Focus on wine related events, tourism intensifies
Community groups pressuring county to reign in events, concentration
The push to build more wineries, tasting rooms, and event centers, and capture dollars from the river of tourists lured to the Wine Country with a county-funded, multi-million dollar marketing plan has prompted increasing pushback from community groups and even farmers concerned that the mass on-the-farm marketing of local wines threatens to overwhelm Sonoma’s rural character.
And while the county’s General Plan and building codes promote “visitor serving uses” of ag lands, they also contain fairly specific policies to avoid concentrating commercial developments in agricultural areas. However, the lack of specific guidelines has resulted in an almost complete inability of the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors to curb wine related development.
On July 12, four of the county’s five supervisors held a study session with PRMD to consider possible actions to address the growing concerns about noise, traffic, concentrations and inappropriate development in rural areas. Supervisor Shirlee Zane was back in Washington, D.C., on county business.
Rather than direct planning staff to begin developing an ordinance and zoning rules aimed at overconcentration of facilities, defining what kinds of events are allowed, and providing definite guidelines, the Board told staff to come up with plans that would continue to allow “flexibility” and “case-by-case” consideration of future wine industry projects on ag lands.
The wine industry is a major element of Sonoma County’s economy. According to industry figures, the grape crop alone is valued at $446 million (as of 2015, the most recent available figures) and represents an estimated retail wine value of $7.9 billion worldwide. County figures estimate the value of the wine tourist industry to be $1.25 billion in 2012. The wine industry is estimated to contribute $13.5 billion to the local economy and provides for 54,000 jobs.
Prior to 1989, events and promotional activities were not allowed on ag lands. That was changed to promote ag related events everywhere, and reinforced by a 1993 zoning code update that allowed retail sales and “promotion of agricultural products” along with “occasional cultural events” with over-the-counter use permits.
This shift to direct-to-consumer marketing is blamed on the lack of market access for smaller wine producers because of a declining number of wine distributors. Smaller wine producers are defined as those making 10,000 cases or fewer a year, and they make up half the county’s producers. The staff report on events said, “This shift has driven an increase in promotional activities and events that bring customers to agricultural areas for wine release parties, winemaker dinners, open house and industry-wide events and other gatherings that have, in some situations, resulted in neighborhood impacts and potential land use conflicts.”
Locally, Kenwood residents have been concerned for years about the abundance of tasting rooms and winery events along a two-mile stretch of Highway 12 through town. About 50 people attended a July 20 Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA) meeting for a presentation on “Trouble in Paradise” by the west county group Preserve Rural Sonoma County. PRSC is working to stop or scale back a major wine and alcohol distillery from being developed near Sebastopol, next to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and dealing with other event and tasting room developments in the coastal areas. VOTMA itself was formed to stop the resort at the former Graywood Ranch, now slated for construction by early next year.
The July 20 meeting was considerably less vocal than the previous VOTMA meeting on June 29 to hear and discuss Kenwood Winery’s proposed new tasting room, increase in visitor capacity, and request to formalize its event lineup (Kenwood Press, July 1, 2016).
Kenwood Winery has been owned by international wine and spirits giant Pernot Ricard since 2014. It can produce up to 500,000 cases annually, with no problem distributing that wine nationally, but still wants to triple its onsite sales building area and double the number of visitors to 50,000 a year.
The biggest issue for most people in Sonoma Valley is the increasing traffic on Highway 12. The worst tie-up in decades resulted not from a winery event, but a Lavender Festival that went viral on social media and clogged Highway 12 with cars for a mile on either side of the Chateau St. Jean entrance (also the entrance to the festival). Traffic was snarled for hours. A month earlier, a private event hosted at Ledson Winery also resulted in about a hundred cars parked on either side of the entrance on Highway 12, but not so much traffic delay.
In both instances, bicycle and pedestrian traffic was forced into the main thoroughfare.
The county’s 1989 General Plan forecast was that there would be just over 200 wineries operating now. In fact, there are over 440 and the number is increasing. There are 291 permits for wine tasting and event facilities. The most recent staff report on events singled out local concentrations of events in some areas, particularly Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Westside Road, which have all seen dramatic confrontations between residents and wineries over noise, traffic and events.
An attempt to have wineries calendar their events to allow some sort of coordination has not worked out.
“That was a failure,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said. The Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau was awarded over $100,000 to produce an online event calendar theoretically including all local winery events. Participation, however, was strictly voluntarily and the project never achieved the desired results.
PRMD will come back by the end of September with a list of options to be considered by the Board of Supervisors. While the 20-person planning division of the 110-person PRMD was decimated by the retirement of five experienced staff last month, new people are being hired rapidly, according to PRMD Director Tennis Wick.