Winery development fight rages on in Santa Barbara
Should wineries be allowed to host special events, such as weddings or fundraisers for charities, on their property?
The obvious answer is “Yes.” But a lot of people think otherwise. We’ve seen legal and political battles for years between both sides of this issue, up and down the state of California; but nowhere has it raged so fiercely as in Santa Barbara County.
The poster child for the brouhaha has been the Larner Vineyard & Winery, which has been trying to get a permit for a tasting room and winery at their vineyard property, in the Santa Ynez Valley. (I should point out that one of the family, Monica Larner, is Wine Enthusiast’s Rome-based Italian editor.)
The Larner family has been stymied from the outset by some of their neighbors along Ballard Canyon Road, who fear “the traffic and noise associated with tasting rooms and winery events such as weddings and fundraisers,” according to this recent article in the Santa Ynez Valley News. The county has been holding a series of public meetings, the last of which is supposed to be on Feb. 21, but whose outcome probably won’t be determined until 2014.
Proponents of special events at wineries say they’re good for the local economy, as they bring tourists with spending money into areas that, like the Santa Ynez Valley, are rapidly becoming wine-and-food destinations. Opponents “argue that such events can be and often are noisy and disruptive, and have at least the potential to release a lot of intoxicated drivers onto local roads,” the Lompoc Record wrote yesterday; Lompoc, too, at the far western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, has been experiencing similar struggles.
Here’s what I think. Winery development is good for regions. It brings in business via tourism. More tourists means more inns, coffee shops and restaurants. Which means more work for wait staff, dishwashers, cooks, cashiers, janitors. Also more orders for suppliers, which benefits not just the immediate area but the wider one.
Yes, with tourism comes more traffic, and the possibility of drunk drivers. But the Sheriff’s departments in Napa and Sonoma counties seem to have a handle on that situation. I’ve been intimately connected with both regions for many years and have always been pleasantly surprised that the issue of drunk driving seems to be relatively minor. How many weddings would the Larner winery host in a year, anyway? Does anyone really think that the valley would be endangered by having a few drivers on the road who’ve had a glass or two of Chardonnay?
Besides, the county doesn’t seem to have an issue with all the tasting rooms in Los Olivos. That’s where the crowds are really concentrated, that’s where people drink and then get in their cars and drive. If county officials let Los Olivos get as developed as they did, they should let a couple wineries have a few weddings or fundraisers a few times a year.
I don’t feel particularly sorry for people who have been living in idyllic, isolated splendor in these pristine patches of wine country and who tremble with rage every time they hear a car drive past. I think Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley and other older examples of wine country have demonstrated that development can be encouraged and controlled at the same time. There are any number of ways to build in zoning or occupancy regulations that will prohibit an unbridled explosion of growth, yet permit it to occur in an orderly way. I hope the politicians of Santa Barbara County have the cojones to stand up to opponents of winery development who are loud of voice, but small in number.