Locals Continue to Clash with Sonoma WIneries

Locals Continue to Clash with Sonoma Wineries

Sonoma's growing reputation hasn't all been plain sailing.

© Go California | Sonoma’s growing reputation hasn’t all been plain sailing.

County residents request a moratorium on new winery spaces.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Friday, 17-Aug-2018

While many wine country regions have welcomed revenue from new businesses, the somewhat-still-rural hamlet of Sonoma County clearly has conflicted sentiments.

Compared to the top-dollar region of Napa Valley, which was smart enough to self-regulate itself a half century ago, and less affluent areas such as the New York Finger Lakes that tend to support new development for economic reasons, wine industry regulation and growth in Sonoma has not been an easy process.

The county includes some of the most bucolic land – complete with ocean views – in California wine country. Its major towns of Sonoma, Healdsburg and, more recently, Sebastopol have been attracting low-key, yet quite profitable tourism for some decades. Most of the area’s tasting rooms also don’t charge a $50-plus per-person reserve tasting fee and traffic has primarily been manageable on Sonoma’s small roads for a number of decades.

However, local residents have come to a boiling point about vehicles, noise and general exuberant indulgence within their county’s limits. Roads in the region are rustic and new wineries have been sprouting up like poppies for decades.

According to Tennis Wick, the Santa Rosa-based director of Permit Sonoma, the county currently has 467 wineries approved in unincorporated areas. The “general plan for Sonoma County projected 239 wineries by the year 2020 because that number was environmentally prudent. From 2000 to 2015 there was a 300-percent increase in new winery facilities. Sonoma County was home to 127 wineries in 2000 and has nearly 500 now,” shares Padi Selwyn, the co-chair of Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC), a group that has spearheaded local residents’ desires to moderate new winery and event space openings.

“With 80 percent of our wineries on agricultural, rural lands, Sonoma County has more wineries and event venues than all the other counties combined [apart from Napa], with more pressure for new development and expanded uses,” she continues. As a result PRSC has collected 1145 signatures on a petition calling on Sonoma County to stop permitting new or expanded wineries until a long-awaited ordinance is put in place to regulate wine industry events.

Sonoma Plaza. Council has restricted tasting rooms due to over concentration, binge tourism.

“The rural unincorporated areas of Sonoma County encompass about 2700 lane miles of roads, making Sonoma County one of the most expansive road networks in the Greater Bay Area,” adds Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, the executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, an environmental organization.

She continue: “Sonoma County also happens to be one of the more sparsely populated municipalities in the region. This means that the amount of revenue generated for road repair in Sonoma County is below average … And for this reason, pot holes are a common occurrence. Putting more tourism in the furthest outlying areas of our County is irresponsible to local residents who live in these areas.”

To the regret of many Sonoma residents, county officials have been more focused on fire control during a summer that has been the most devastating for wine country fires in the history of the state. The Board of Zoning Adjustments, which is part of Permit Sonoma, has put off ruling on new permits until next year given the region’s current prioritization of the fires. Major wine industry analysts also agree that this is the right thing to do, although Selwyn and her community would like a temporary stop-gap imposed on new winery tasting- and event-room development in the meantime.

A real look at Sonoma County

This dynamic California region – much of which is within a 45-minute drive on a good day from San Francisco – has long been seen as a rural haven for Bay Area residents. It has been subjected to much less regulation than other California regions such as Santa Barbara, which has struggled to deal with a huge influx of tourism since the 2004 movie Sideways.

A dozen established, local producers declined to comment for this story as they have for previous ones on this topic. While this has been a typical reaction among Sonoma vintners, it is not one that helps them defend their economically productive side of the story. In their stead, local analysts and the interim executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners shared their perspective that a moratorium on new winery construction would be short-sighted and premature.

“At this critical time, I believe, every winery application deserves a fair vetting from the County. A ban on new winery permits could potentially reduce employment opportunities and cause negative economic implications for our county,” said Michael Haney, the Sonoma County Vintners’ interim executive director.

He adds that while residents may be frustrated with tourist overflow, much of the influx of visitors has been good for the economy. “With over $14 billion contributed by wineries and grape growers to the local economy and millions of dollars donated each year to our community’s non-profit organizations, Sonoma County wineries are critical to our county’s success and sustainability.”

The growing number of tourists is putting pressures on the locals.

© Winerist | The growing number of tourists is putting pressures on the locals.What the analysts say

Local wine industry consultants are also doubtful about the benefits of constraining winery growth in the area. “In this case, a small group of local activists have an anti-growth and anti-change agenda. To their way of thinking, the wine community has tipped the balance away from their vision of rural living. The other side of the debate will talk about the economic vitality of Sonoma County that is backstopped by the wine business through jobs, tourism, and the tax revenue that creates,” shares McMillan, the Napa-based founder of and executive vice president of the Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division.

He continues to note that “there is no question that the character of Sonoma County is changing, but is it changing for the better? I’d suggest that it is as evidenced by more jobs, a better economy, stable government and funding and county services that are dramatically and positively impacted by the wine business.”

Fire recovery – given that more than 107 fires were burning in 14 states at the beginning of August according to Gregory Jones, the director of the Evenstad Center for Wine Education at Linfield College in Oregon – is currently paramount for almost everyone in Northern California wine country.

“The Winery Events policy item is scheduled to come before the board in the first quarter of calendar year 2019. In the meantime, local advisory groups are forming and setting their own criteria for evaluating winery event applications,” shares Permit Sonoma’s Wick.

However McMillan can also see why the locals are concerned about winery expansion. “But the anti-growth side shouldn’t be dismissed. They have a point that should be heard regarding events. I totally understand a point of view that objects to abject changed foisted on their quiet living.”

He asks: “Would it be OK if wineries decided to have a ‘Heavy Metal Band Weekend’ and every winery hosted a band with their amplifiers turned up to 11? There can be common ground found that could be the basis for new regulation on events at wineries but the gulf is wide.”

Berkeley-based wine analyst Christian Miller, proprietor of Full Glass Research, notes, that while he can’t share the odds on a Sonoma moratorium referendum, existing tasting rooms could benefit from a halt in new tasting room openings, “because it divides tourists coming into Sonoma … There’s no reason to assume each new tasting room attracts sufficient incremental new visitors to maintain the average visitors-to-wineries ratio.”

A long-term outlook

While the Sonoma wineries remain mum, their supporters question taking dramatic steps to cap the current amount of producers in the country. “We do not support any type of moratorium on the growth of new wineries in Sonoma County. If a moratorium is considered by County officials, we would hope they would agree that it is not in the best interest of our County and our wine community, which is one of the leading economic providers and employers of Sonoma County,” says Haney.

The right balance between locals’ and wineries’ needs in the region is far from clear at this point. It leaves much of what may ensue up to speculation and it is never an encouraging situation when vibrant producers don’t want to defend their livelihood and demonstrate what they bring to their community. They will eventually need to step up to the bat and stop deferring to analysts, outspoken wineries in other regions and their vintners association to decide their future.