Napa Valley and Its”By Appointment Only” Problem
If you enjoy watching good old fashioned democracy in action, then watch the Napa Valley Board of Supervisors meeting today.
Today a public hearing is on the agenda to discuss the modification of the "Winery Definition Ordinance". This is the public document that defines what kind of events a Napa Valley Winery may engage in and even discusses how a winery might market itself.
What everyone is in a tizzy over is this:
"Marketing of wine” means any activity of a winery identified in
this paragraph which is conducted at the winery and is limited to
members of the wine trade, persons who have pre-established
business or personal relationships with the winery or its owners,
or members of a particular group for which the activity is being
conducted on a prearranged basis. Marketing of wine is limited to
activities for the education and development of the persons or
groups listed above with respect to wine which can be sold at the
winery on a retail basis … and may include food service without
charge except to the extent of cost recovery when provided in
association with such education and development, but shall not
include cultural and social events unrelated to such education and
This is the language in the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance that essentially prohibits weddings and other "cultural and social events" from occurring at Napa Valley wineries. A number of organizations and individuals have come to the conclusion that these very restrictive conditions for marketing at one's own winery facility in Napa Valley are detrimental to their own financial well being, to the financial well being of the County and could easily be modified without effecting the agricultural character of the valley.
And of course they are correct. Wineries could easily have weddings and events, limited in size, that have little or no effect on the agricultural character of the valley. And anyone who says that the agricultural character of Napa will be harmed if wineries are allowed to have weddings or "social and cultural events" or even host business meetings, has some deeper agenda than wanting to preserve ag land.
But what interests me more today than the idea that the agricultural nature of Napa Valley may be completely destroyed if Marge and Hank from Antioch decide to get married somewhere in Rutherford, is another proposal that the Napa County Board of Supervisors will consider: removing the requirement that new wineries only allow wine tastings "By Appointment Only".
" 'Tours and Tastings' shall mean tours of the winery and/or tastings of wine, where such tours and tastings are limited to members of the wine trade, persons invited by a winery who have pre-established business or personal relationships with the winery or its owners, and person who have made unsolicited prior appointments for tours or tastings"
This is how the Winery Definition Ordinance has help create a "By Appointment Culture" in Napa Valley.
The vast majority of wineries in Napa Valley are not accessible for tastings without a prior appointment. This is due to the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance that restricted new wineries from having tours and tastings open to the public. This is a restriction that many want to see changed.
In my view, this would be the biggest change that could occur if the Napa Valley Winery Definition Ordinance is altered.
Currently, the vast majority of visitors to Napa Valley simply pull out their maps and their guide books and start looking for wineries to visit. Those guide books and maps mostly include wineries that are open for public tastings and those are the wineries that get the majority of visitors. Furthermore, as visitors to Napa Valley drive up and down Silverado Trail and across the Valley from Highway 29 to Silverado Trail, most of the signs they see read: "Tastings and Tours By Appointment Only".
So, what would be the impact on Napa Valley if the "By Appointment Only" requirement found in the Winery Definition Ordinance were removed.
First, let's be clear about something: It would have NO impact on the agricultural character of Napa Valley or threaten the culture of agricultural preservation that so many stakeholders and commentators in this debate claim could be affected if the Winery Definition Ordinance is changed.
(For that matter, allowing weddings to occur in Napa Valley would in no way threaten grape growing in Napa Valley. Yet, this claim is made regularly.)
Here's the thing about removing the "By Appointment Only" restrictions that wineries in Napa Valley labor under:
1. The proliferation of signs along the roads of Napa Valley that say, "By Appointment Only" is a huge reason that Napa Valley is viewed as a restrictive, hoity toity, snooty place, particularly compared to a place like Sonoma County. I and others believe this isn't a very good thing for Napa Valley.
2. Given the changes in the wine industry since 1990 (when the Winery Definition Ordinance was implemented) such as the now-important emphasis on direct to consumer sales, the restriction on how wineries can offer tours and tastings is a huge roadblock to the viability of Napa Valley's economy.
3. Even if the "By Appointment Only" restriction was removed from the Winery Definition Ordinance, wineries would not be able to throw open their doors to 1000s of visitors per day. Their Use Permit defines how many visitors they may have on a given day, week or month.
4. Even if the "By Appointment Only" restriction were removed from the Winery Definition Ordinance, Many wineries would retain their "By Appointment Only" approach to tours and tastings as a way to qualify the kinds of people who come to taste their wines. This is just fine with me because the key is to give businesses the CHOICE as to how they market their wines.
The process by which the Napa Valley Winery Definition Ordinance is altered and changed is likely to be a long one. It began in the Fall of last year. Many issues are involved including how any change in the Winery Definition Ordinance jibe with the County General Plan and zoning regulations.
I guess my message is this: Let's not let zealots who offer vague claims about the the demise of Napa Valley agriculture and the NV Ag Preserve resulting from more marketing opportunities that come from an alteration of thee Winery Definition Ordinance let their message carry any significant meaning.