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News: 07/01/2016

Kenwood Vineyards gets an earful at community meeting

Early rendering of the proposed new tasting room at Kenwood Vinyards by MAD Architecture of Petaluma, submitted for Landmarks Commission and Design Review meetings.

Years of accumulated frustration by Kenwood residents over what many see as the rising negative impacts of tourist-related developments and activities boiled over at a recent community meeting.

Ostensibly a presentation and discussion of a use permit proposal for a new tasting room and an increase in events at Kenwood Vineyards, the 80-plus people who attended the June 29 meeting at the Kenwood Depot took the opportunity to unload pent up emotions.

Representatives of Kenwood Vineyards, which was bought by international wine and spirits giant Pernod Ricard in 2014, got off to a rocky start with the crowd when the winery’s Vice President of Operations Jeremy Wright began the evening talking about winery efforts to improve the branding and marketing of Kenwood Vineyards wines.

“We’re not concerned about your wines,” said one Kenwood resident. “We want to know what the impact will be.”

The meeting, sponsored by the Valley of the Moon Alliance, deteriorated from there for a while, with Kenwood Vineyards, who had voluntarily come to talk to the community, taking the heat for all the real and perceived ills perpetrated by the explosion of the Sonoma County wine industry in recent years.

Kenwood has been increasingly impacted by visitor-related projects, and residents are feeling the pressure. New wineries and event requests are in the pipeline, vacation rentals have changed neighborhoods, and the biggest development in Kenwood in decades is soon to break ground – a resort on the former Graywood Ranch, made up of a 50-room inn, restaurant, 11 home sites, and a winery.

“Many of us feel like we’re trapped in our homes on weekends because we’re afraid to go out on the highway,” said longtime Kenwood resident Pam Heidorn, who expressed concern about the impact of Kenwood Vineyards’ events request, as well as those of other local wineries, on local emergency services.

Kenwood Vineyards, which began at the old Pagani Winery site in 1970, is proposing to build a new 4,100-square-foot tasting room and retail sales building on a hillside east of the winery. Wright said the one-story building will be sited so that it will not be seen from the highway. A new access road, parking, landscaping, and sewage treatment are all part of the use permit request, which will eventually be heard by the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments at a not yet scheduled public hearing.

Currently, said Wright, Kenwood Vineyards gets about 25,000 visitors a year. With the new facilities, Wright said he expects that could increase to 35,000.

Kenwood Vineyards is also asking for up to 22 events, as well as an additional six industry-wide events. According to the Kenwood Vineyards application, the winery currently holds eight events.

The winery would keep its current permitted production level at 500,000 cases.

Wright fielded a number of questions including concerns about food service, water, lighting, noise, and the impact of more vehicles on Sonoma Highway.

A common question involved what benefits the Kenwood Vineyards project would bring to the town of Kenwood. Speakers told the Kenwood Vineyards representatives at the meeting that over the years, a number of local wineries have changed hands from being family-owned to corporate-owned, often accompanied by a decrease in involvement with the local community.

While attendees appreciated the recent $315,000 pledge to Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, speakers encouraged Kenwood Vineyards to think about helping local Kenwood institutions as well, such as the Kenwood Fire Department or Kenwood School.

Wright said Kenwood Vineyards has a continuing community outreach program. He said the winery wants to work with the community, and has actually scaled back some of the plans since they were originally filed after receiving input.

“We will be transparent, that’s our commitment,” said Wright. “We’re not bringing Disneyland or Napa to Sonoma County. We’re renovating our winery.”

At the end of the evening, many expressed their appreciation for Wright and his colleagues in coming to the meeting, explaining that there are big picture issues involved.

“It’s not just Kenwood Vineyards and your plans,” said one resident. “It’s the impact the whole wine industry has had on Sonoma County. The wine industry has to get its act together, act responsibly.”

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