Posted on

Winery events workshop


Opinions aired and gathered on wine event regulations

By Jay Gamel

After years of talk about curbing the impacts of wine industry marketing on rural residents and roads, Sonoma County is drawing nearer to formulating definitions and rules to set limits on the number of events and people being drawn to vineyards and tasting rooms in rural areas, particularly Sonoma Valley and the west county. A public workshop gathered industry representatives, residents, and other interested parties into a virtual session to look at a draft set of regulations and to debate definitions that will be critical to what is regulated.

Just over half of the 300 people who signed up for the Feb. 18 virtual event actually attended, representing all parties to the process. Attendees received an overview of the current draft and an outline of the remaining issues to be decided. The biggest issue remains a coherent definition of what constitutes an event or at least an event subject to regulation.

Industry groups are seeking to carve out a broad exception for “normal business activities” that should not be considered regulated events.

Permit Sonoma senior planner Georgia Mc-Daniel said the rules are being made to “balance environmental protection with sustainable development,” emphasizing that the “wine industry is so important to our economy.”

Supervising Planner Hanna Spencer noted that the county has been working on event control since at least 2014. She identified the key issues as wine industry business needs, neighborhood compatibility, impacts of traffic, noise, and water use, the commercialization of agricultural lands, and lastly, preserving rural character and looking at local concentrations of wineries and tasting rooms drawing people in to buy their wines.

Events began being permitted on ag lands with a use permit in the 1987 General Plan. By 1993, agricultural promotion was included, and in 1996, limited food service was allowed. By 2014, enough grumbling was being generated by rural residents that the county developed a work plan for winery events. That plan led to a county winery events study session in 2016 that resulted in county supervisors directing Permit Sonoma staff to prepare standards and definitions that began bearing fruit in 2019, with the development of a specific work plan. Four out of five supervisors balked at moving ahead with regulating winery events in May 2020, citing the heavy impacts of the 2017 wildfire and the COVID-19 pandemic on the wine industry. Three of the four preferred to see guidelines, not regulations, to resolve any outstanding issues.

Permit Sonoma convened stakeholder groups in Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Westside Road to develop local area guidelines in 2016, with mixed results. All of these areas have concentrations of event locations. Dry Creek Valley had a set of guidelines in place by 2017, the Sonoma Valley group has a draft set of guidelines prepared, but no Westside Road group has emerged so far.

As an attendee at the Feb. 18 Winery Events Public Workshop, this reporter was grouped with Press Democrat reporter Bill Swindell, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi, former Santa Rosa Mayor and business manager of Taft Street Winery, Terry Harrison of Foxwhelp Farms in Healdsburg, Joe Foppoli of Foppoli Wines, John Busby, director of direct-to-consumer marketing for Rodney Strong Vineyards, Marc Bommersbach, winegrower from the Russian River, and Christina David of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers.

The task at hand was to come up with distinctions between events to be regulated and regular wine business — which is selling wine directly to customers when they show up. Permit Sonoma started with definitions of each that posited wine tasting tours, food and wine pairings, and pickup parties (where people come to pick up their pre-ordered releases or wine club distributions) would all be unregulated visitorserving activities. Winery events suggested by Permit Sonoma would include winemaker lunches and dinners, release parties, club parties, and by-invitation meetings and wine-associated harvest parties.

Mike Martini said that agricultural lands are inherently commercial and should not be singled out for developing commercial aspects of wine sales.

“People aren’t growing because of the landscaping,” Martini said. “They are growing to sell.”

Martini further cautioned that the current wildfires and pandemic underscore the need to be flexible under changing conditions.

Bommersbach noted that whatever regulations are eventually rolled out will apply to all agriculture, not just events, making a special note of rapidly expanding cannabis cultivation and potential direct-to-consumer sales activities. But he is basically “happy with what county has been doing,” though he acknowledges that, “some people don’t like it much.”

Harrison would see that vineyards receive credit for carbon sequestration and other measures they are taking in the ongoing battle with climate change. “All those would balance out any greenhouse gas emissions because of events,” he said.

Tesconi asserted that agricultural regulation is up 700 percent, and that the county “must allow direct touch with the consumers,” observing that “nobody can afford 200 acres of tomatoes.”

The consensus of the group was that almost all gatherings during regular business hours should be exempt; after-hours impacts were fair to monitor.

Not all breakout groups were as heavily industry oriented. After the group convened as a whole, ideas put forth included measuring impacts by the number of complaints received and including impacts on water and sanitation resources as criteria for defining an event.

Some people thought that if there are advertising and attendance fees involved, it should be an event. One complaint suggested that the draft ordinance did not go far enough in looking at public safety for bicycles and pedestrians.

Results from the 15 groups will be compiled and made available before the next draft revision, which is expected to come before the county Planning Commission by May and go for approval by the Board of Supervisors in August.