Regulating Wineries To Death in CA

I recall, a year or so ago, sitting in a public hearing of the Sonoma County General Plan Committee. Under discussion was the proposed regulation to be incuded in the new general plan that any winery in Sonoma County must buy 70% of its grapes from Sonoma County vineyards.

The proposed rule was meant to keep large "industrial" (as they called them) wineries that import grapes from across the state from sullying our county. The proposed ruled also was a grape grower protection act.

Now we read that El Dorado County, in the Sierra Foothills and a source of outstanding wines, is considering a similar rule, along with a number of others. In this case, the County lawmakers are very clear that the rule is meant to keep out "large-scale competition and earth-changing companies such as Gallo." Their ordinance would read that 50% of all grapes a winery uses in El Dorado County must come from El Dorado County vineyards.

I’m unaware of any other California law that provides that businesses MUST source their raw materials from within the county they produce their goods. And there is probably a good reason for this: It’s absurd.

It seems to me that if you want to limit the size of production facilities in a region the best way to do so is to place a restriction on the square footage of the processing plant or winery or even a place a restriction on the amount of wine that can be produced at a single winery.

By forcing wineries to buy a particular amount of grapes from within the county, wineries are essentially restricted to the kind of wine they produce. Why shouldn’t an El Dorado County winery be able to have a business plan that has them producing, say, a number of different Zinfandels from regions across the state, showcasing different vineyards and terroir. They wouldn’t be able to do this in El Dorado County if this new ordinance passes because…..well….just because, as far as I can tell.

Finally, it strikes me that if wineries are forced to obtain 50% of their grapes from El Dorado County vineyards, then El Dorado County vineyards ought to, by law, be forced to sell 50% of their grapes to El Dorado County wineries.

There is a preconceived notion at play in these sort of laws restricting what wineries can do. At play is the idea that wineries are born rich and prosperous, that their owners are rich and prosperous and, most important, that there is a certain frivolity to the winery business that makes them particularly attractive targets for regulations. These ideas arise, I think, in large part from the purely hedonistic act of visiting wineries, drinking wine and appreciating wine and the type of visible marketing that plays to that hedonistic pursuit.

This view of wine is in turn a result of the beverage never having been a staple of American life like rum and brown spirits were at one time and that beer is now. Everyone likes a cool, refreshing beer. But it’s the hoity toity that savor a glass of wine. It just makes it easier for populist politicians to push laws that hamstring wineries.

7 Responses

  1. JohnLopresti - July 7, 2006

    There is the terroir view, as you mentioned; counties are interested since the recent Napa settlement in court with a central valley bulk winery.
    The issue with poor Amador and other nifty microclimates with longstanding grapegrowing as well as many new plantings and wineries in the Sierra foothills, as well as elsewhere, is the label, not the locale of the winery. Sonoma County’s wine road is a fairly recent development; it used to be if a group planned a road tasting it had to be Napa because even finding a tasting room, or, better yet, a cluster of them was possible only for the effete culturati because they knew where the wineries are.
    Additionally, CA ultra premium enology has improved vastly over these very few decades, making it possible to find quite a few excellent tasting rooms in sequence in many little valleys and long some ridges in Sonoma County and Napa County areas. I trust the public officials to adjust their policies into a configuration the burgeoning numbers of El Dorado and Amador growers and vintners will praise.
    While the jet set may have discovered real madeira before the Safeway supermarket shoppers, the Safeway folks now have at their disposal a wide selection of local wines with amply distinctive terroir in the winemaking.
    I think the public policymakers trying to obtain regional recognition for their distinctive wines and newfound reputation might do well to consult with someone like you Tom. While you are in their El Dorado, Amador, vicinity, take that nice web photo camera, and transfer some of your excellent field essays with images to your website. You are doing a lot for ultrapremium wineries, as well as the ranchers, like us.
    This blog is usually unpolitical and that is relaxing. But, let me mention a recent event in which a winegrape grower who is running for president appeared at a Las Vegas convention to talk pre-caucus politics. I looked at his vineyard location, and the cv of his current winemaker. He has 40 acres in a river area near the ocean and found a winemaker who has experience in the pacific northwest where viticulture is practiced under much more extreme winter conditions than in the northcoast of CA here. The politician’s name, Mark Warner, ex governor of VA. His grapes grow about eighty miles from the White House, viogner, cabernet franc, chardonnay.

    Warner, cabernet franc:
    ?Ever hear of the Ingleside Plantation label on the West coast?

  2. St.Vini - July 7, 2006

    “I’m unaware of any other California law that provides that businesses MUST source their raw materials from within the county they produce their goods. And there is probably a good reason for this: It’s absurd.”
    You mean besides Napa’s current 75% Napa fruit requirement, right? (exceptions for older, “grandfathered” permits)
    I think the issue is often more to do with water use and promoting local grapes over cheaper ones. Water restrictions prevent wineries (which use about 4 gallons of water for every gallon of wine produced) from using more than their share (water rights are already the most valuable resource most wineries own). I agree, however, that restricting size/capacity is probably a better solution.

  3. tom - July 7, 2006

    I was referring to other industries, rather than other regulatioins in the wine industry.
    Very interesting stuff regarding Warner. One wonders how it will be brought up during the primaries, if at all.

  4. Mary Baker - July 8, 2006

    Thank you, Tom. Although I would like to see more emphasis on terroir, I agree that wineries are over-regulated and frequently perceived as a “rich man’s hobby.” It is, unfortunately, an image that the California wine industry has visited upon itself. Hopefully wine blogging will change this image by allowing more small producers to describe their passion and their struggles. Remember Robert Mondavi’s story about scrimping and saving to buy his wife a fur coat for their appearance at the White House?

  5. Mary Baker - July 8, 2006

    PS. I wish you had a search widget.

  6. tom merle - July 10, 2006

    Your have it very wrong. Napa wineries are not required to source at least 75% of grapes grown in Napa for their wines. Only if they place the appellation ~Napa Valley~ (=Napa County) on the label, does the 75% rule apply. Napa wineries can source grapes anywhere domestically as long as they state the proper appellation even if it just says ~California~.
    T O M

  7. Poggio Argentiera - July 11, 2006

    La frivolezza del vino

    Leggevo in questo post dell’ottimo blog di Tom Wark, Fermentation a proposito di una proposta di legge sulla possibilità di acquisto di uve in alcune contee della California. Secondo questa proposta la El Dorado County proibirebbe alle cantine d…

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