UPDATE: 3-2 Supervisor vote for wine interests…Winery Event Ordinance Returns Yet Again to Sonoma Board of Supervisors

As many readers may recall, in December 2014 in response to community outcry, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to prepare options for updating policy on regulating winery events, particularly in the over-concentrated wine areas of Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road, either as a zoning amendment or local event guidelines. Finally, after a pandemic and numerous devastating wildfires, the Board of Supervisors’ Planning Commission approved a draft ordinance in June 2022 which had a decent framework for evaluating projects.

Since the beginning of this process, in 2014, the Wine Industry has tried to turn the development of a winery event ordinance, that was intended to limit non-agricultural, entertainment and hospitality uses in agricultural areas, into an ordinance that expands the entitlements of wineries to do more such uses. At the last hearing in November 2022, numbers of wine- and tourism-industry hired hands appeared to protest the proposed regulations and as a result, the Board of Supervisors not only rejected their own Planning Commission’s recommendations but several members of the Board pushed for the wine industry’s position to roll back Permit Sonoma’s somewhat lax current standards and practices. They also removed, for example, such definitions as catering kitchen, commercial kitchen, food and wine pairing because they thought they were unnecessary. We believe concrete definitions such as these are necessary because restaurants are not allowed in tasting rooms; for a winery to have parties and serve actual meals has nothing to do with wine promotion and endangers legitimate food-service businesses. This is merely one example of all the methods wineries use to draw in customers which have NOTHING to do with agriculture. In addition, wineries don’t want these “parties” to be counted as events because their Use Permits enable them to have so many events a year.

Myths that the Wine Industry promotes include that vineyard owners are small family farms just trying to make a living. Nothing could be further from the truth: according to a 2019 article by the Alexander Valley’s Jordan Winery, two-thirds of the wineries founded in the late 70’s are now owned by corporations. Of course at this point in time there are many more. Another myth is that wineries need to have tasting rooms and entertainment just to make ends meet. The true story on that one is that as younger generations come of age, they are less interested in wine tasting as a form of entertainment. The older generations that typically comprised the wineries’ audience are dying off. In addition, wineries are seeing a large percentage of their wines being sold via online sales. The need for tasting rooms seems destined to become a thing of the past, yet the wineries are determined to write entitlements for themselves into perpetuity.

A new meeting has been scheduled for March 14, 2023. Wine and Water Watch supports the following:

  • Updated definition of winery events to include the criteria they are selling or serving alcohol
  • Definition of a Wine Tasting Room
  • Definition of a promotional event—anything that goes after normal business hours (5 p.m) in an event
  • Define what constitutes a restaurant
  • Standards for tasting room size and facilities
  • No stand-alone event spaces
  • 18-20 foot wide road
  • 20-acre parcel minimum

If you’ve been following this story, or even if you haven’t, please attend in person or Zoom the 3/14/23 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting and let your voice be heard. And please, write your supervisor!