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Finally, quietly, VJB tasting room approved

Years after initial permit, project in line with county

By Chris Rooney

There was a pivotal moment during the June 2 Sonoma County Planning Commission meeting when — even via a Zoom teleconference — the despair was palpable.

“I find myself frustrated,” said Commissioner Greg Carr, adding that he felt like “a ping-pong ball.”

On the agenda was the VJB wine-tasting room, a project on Highway 12 in Kenwood that has endured years of bureaucratic shenanigans but was seemingly on the precipice of getting official approval from county officials. Seemingly.

There wasn’t much left for the commissioners, staff, or project owners to discuss. Even the project’s opponents had all but entirely ceased speaking up. It was a done deal, ready for its stamp of approval.

It was then announced that the Belmonte family, VJB owners, wanted to extend operating hours from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. It doesn’t seem like a significant change, but it would have required an entirely new resolution and yet another delay in getting this project off the commission’s docket once and for all.

There was an agonizing pause while the commissioners absorbed the news. Another delay. After a series of delays. The light at the end of the tunnel had suddenly gone black.

And then Commission Chair Jacquelynne Ocaña more or less swatted away the Belmontes’ request, suggesting the commission get on with the project as it was drafted. The Belmontes, it was decided, could request the change in hours later on, but today, things would get done. For the most part, they did.

The VJB wine-tasting room and marketplace was initially approved in 2007 and began operation in 2012. The facility was permitted as a wine-tasting room and food market, with pre-packaged and prepared food items sold for on-site and off-site consumption. On-site food consumption was approved in an outdoor patio/picnic area with four picnic tables.

The 2007 use permit established standard operating hours for the market and tasting room from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

After being granted final occupancy in 2013, table seating with approximately 144 seats was added on the outdoor patio and VJB began serving prepared food, including barbecued food. An outdoor pizza oven and kitchen were installed in 2013 with issuance of a building permit. However, the scope of work was described as adding a pizza oven and enclosing the patio barbecue; the construction plans for the barbecue enclosure and pizza oven did not clearly identify a commercial stove top, though. Also, on-site parking was not provided as required by the use permit and did not meet code requirements correlating to the current extent of food service seating area.

According to a staff report, since 2013, VJB has operated out of compliance with its use permit by operating a commercial kitchen with patio food service with 144 table seats, by failing to provide sufficient parking, and by exceeding the design capacity of the existing septic system. Additionally, the barbeque and pizza oven have been utilized daily, similar to the commercial kitchen.

The current resolution would bring VJB into compliance with county regulations and its own use permits. It formally recognizes daily use of the 144-seat patio food service operation with a commercial kitchen, barbecue, and pizza oven.

At one point, the Belmontes were on the hook for the construction of a left-turn lane on Highway 12, which required discussions with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

“We’ve been wanting to move forward. We’re not dragging our feet,” said VJB spokesperson Jean Kapolchok. “We’ve been hostage to Caltrans.”

The lane was deemed cost-prohibitive, but the commission still required a modification to a turn lane on Shaw Avenue “by constructing it within the existing right of way rather than dedicating additional right of way and widening the road.”

“To support the restaurant food service activity, the proposed project includes a 1,500 gallon on-site septic system and a 53-space off-site parking lot at 75 Shaw Avenue,” the staff report stated. “The proposed 1,500gpd septic system would accommodate a capacity of up to 313 wine tasting and food service guests per day.”

The only new caveat to receiving the commission’s approval was that VJB have on-site staff or security manning the two parking lots during business hours, requested by Carr.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Kapolchok, who went on to defend her clients. She said VJB’s owners were accused of knowingly operating outside their use permit, but “this is not so.”