By Barbara Barrielle
Last Thursday’s virtual forum organized by Sonoma County’s Permit Sonoma to ostensibly open up conversation about event permitting for wineries in Sonoma County, had over 200 stakeholders taking time out to participate, but many vintners felt it was a charade.
In a time when direct-to-consumer business is more vital than ever for wineries struggling to survive the coronavirus restrictions and the fallout from wildfires, there are factions of the wine country community that want events and tasting opportunities severely limited in busy areas like Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and Sonoma Valley.
The discussion has been ongoing with the County asking regions like Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley to propose guidelines, then asking that those guidelines be more focused, then allegedly taking input from the stakeholders throughout the County and finally, not truly taking winery insights into consideration.
Then, when the event guidelines should be clear and ready to be adopted by the different regions of the County, it appears that Permit Sonoma wants to impose a new countywide mandate, much of it not considering the laborious processes, meetings, negotiations and more the AVAs have gone through in order to come up with a working plan. As one winery representative said, “it’s been a circle of stupidness.”
“It is frustrating and painfully slow to work issues at the County level with so many different people and agendas,” says Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance Executive Director Maureen Cottingham. “That is why it is far more productive to develop guidelines in smaller areas like we did in Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek did in their region.”
“Many members of the local wine industry have been working for years to find common ground with neighborhood groups,” said Jeremy Kreck, winemaker at Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery and the Board President of Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley. “There has been tremendous progress. In my opinion, the meeting on Thursday was an unnecessary step backward and did not reflect all the work that has already been accomplished. The wine industry has endured an unprecedented array of challenges over the last several years. In order to move forward, we must be looking at ways to reduce the regulatory burden and provide a framework to adapt to a constantly changing marketplace. The notion that a ten-person winemaker lunch or an educational tasting for a distributor would even be considered to be categorized as an ‘event’, shows that there is a disparity in understanding of the core day-to-day necessities of the wine business.”
Despite the long tradition and success of agriculture in Sonoma County and the healthy presence of wineries, a faction of residents prefers to stop or even revert agribusiness development, that wineries remain smaller and under the radar, and that their hours of operation be severely limited. Granted a few bad actors have created nuisances that have ballooned into issues that have been addressed by neighborhood and winery associations, but now a broader restrictive mandate is pursued for the whole county.
Thursday’s virtual forum attempted to open discussion on issues like what constitutes a winery event; what constitutes meal service; should live music be allowed; should after hours events take place; are regular business activities events; what size should events be; parking control; and frequency of events. However, the disjointed attempt to engage stakeholders in decision making left many feeling like the decisions concerning their future may already have been determined.
“I think the most critical point in the whole winery event dialog is what constitutes a true event and what should be considered regular business activities,” says vintner and dairy farmer John Bucher whose 360 acre farm is on Westside Road. “Anything that happens during regular business hours and your facility is allowed under its current permit (parking, bathrooms, noise, food, etc.) should be considered an activity.
“Winery tourism and DTC business is even more critical now after years of fires and now a year-long pandemic. These over-restrictive tourism regulations proposed by community groups adversely affect smaller wineries more because they depend more on DTC business for survival,” continues Bucher.
Russian River vintner Rickey Stancliff, who owns Trombetta Wines making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Petaluma Gap and elsewhere was equally annoyed. “It is very frustrating to realize that a ‘working meeting’ has reached a conclusion before the meeting ever started,” says Stancliff, who points out the critical need for direct-to-consumer outreach for her small winery. Because of years spent building relationships, Trombetta had a fantastic holiday sales season which frankly saved 2020 for them. They will not produce a 2020 vintage, though, because of smoke exposure during last year’s wildfires, and will have to rely on continued strong DTC sales for their current and upcoming releases.
One phrase heard bandied around by vintners, some not wanting to go on the record, was that, before getting on the Thursday working virtual call, “the cake was already baked,” so stakeholder input would simply be the frosting.
Permit Sonoma did not respond to requests for comments for this article.