Crunch time for Napa’s Winery Definition Ordinance
I blogged on this a few months ago, and now, Napa’s proposed new Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) is coming up for a vote this Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors, so it’s time to revisit the topic.
“Why bring in Las Vegas to Napa?” one person wrote in to the Napa Valley Register, expressing fears of “wedding chapels” fueled by “corporate greed” attracting hoards of outsiders with attendant problems of traffic, litter and crime.
On the other side is this comment to the Register: “I am in favor of Weddings, Funerals, Bar Mitzfah’s, anything that will bring in a buck or two for the winery’s [sic].”
The issue is whether or not to amend Napa’s original (1990) WDO to allow wineries to host a greater range of for-profit social and cultural events that had, until now, been prohibited. In a petition circulating on the Internet in favor of the changes, the author urges the Board of Supervisors to pass the new amendment, “[g]iven the current unprecedented economic climate, the worst in a generation if not a lifetime,” which is threatening the economic livelihood of an unknown number of Napa Valley wineries.
As the St. Helena Star pointed out last Fall, “Back in 1989, after much wrangling, it was eventually decided that restricting commercial activity within wineries in the unincorporated, agricultural areas of Napa County would protect the rural nature of the county and its historic agricultural preserve.” That decision resulted in sharp new restrictions on tourist activity: tours and tastings for new wineries were to be offered by appointment only. Non-agricultural uses like weddings were prohibited. In this way, WDO supporters hoped to prevent “putting the valley on a fast track toward Disneyland.”
That was then, when the economy was pretty good and the extraordinary boom on the 1990s was just over the horizon. Fast forward to today. The St. Helena Star didn’t come out with a specific editorial opinion, but pointed out the stark nature of the debate: Napa faces “either wine Disneyland or failed wineries replaced by houses.” A horrible, Sophian choice.
Not being a resident of Napa Valley, my opinion perhaps doesn’t matter. But I can’t see the harm in allowing wineries a little more leeway. Napa already has a lot of touristy stuff — the Wine Train, bumper to bumper traffic on Highway 29 especially during summer, busloads of visitors brought up from San Francisco, the Petrified Forest, Calistoga’s mudbaths. The more popular tasting rooms are completely mobbed in High Season. And think about those 100 cents on the dollar, full-retail prices tourists are dropping on wine they buy direct from the winery. You never hear locals complaining about the millions that visitors leave behind to pay for roads, schools, cops and firefighters.
The proposed new amendment is neither draconian nor dictatorial. No winery would be forced to do anything it doesn’t want to. And the trial period for the amendment is two years; in 2012, the Board will revisit it to determine if it works as intended. It’s hard to see how a few more weddings and birthday parties would have any impact at all on Napa’s agricultural preserve. It will take increased diligence on the part of winery owners to police and clean up after their events, but that’s the least you’d expect from somebody doing business in Napa Valley. I hope the Board passes the amendment. It could spell the difference between survival and failure for some wineries up there.