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.

14 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - March 2, 2010

    One of the things that scares me about California is the Babylonian thinking that pervades–and we know what happened to Babylon.

  2. Marcia - March 2, 2010

    Thank you, Tom, for the links to the live feed (currently on lunch recess until 2pm PST – the WDO discussion is listed, I believe, for immediately after lunch). I’ll be tuning in.
    Second, it’s looks like you’ve finally arrived at your opinion on this issue, as I recall you were waiting to hear the respective voices from the Farm Bureau and Vintners’ organizations et al before deciding what you thought of the proposed changes. It sounds, however, like you always thought the “by appointment” regulation stifled winery/business growth, and to that I concur.
    For as long as I made the drive up from the City for many years, I immediately discounted tasting the wines at the “by app’t only” joints because it was inconvenient. The perception is that ‘we’re elite’ and don’t need your business when you see those signs. Even now, when I live in Napa, I still don’t make the extra effort to call for appointments unless I have a specific guest visiting with a specific request to visit a winery that only offers “by appointment.”
    As you said, if the regulation changes, it’s not as if those wineries’ permits will allow and/or effectively see 1000’s more streaming through their driveways. Ditto the wedding regulation. Body and car count streaming in and out of winery property is not going to suddenly skyrocket causing Bay Bridge-like congestion up and down 29 and Silverado Trail. The Ag will remain Preserved.
    As to some suggestions that those wishing to wed can currently do so via permitted venues such as the valley’s lovely hotels and resorts, sure, it’s true. But I know of a lot more people who wanted to be married AT a Napa winery for its sheer beauty, magnificent views and overall ambiance. (Something they believed they couldn’t get at the hotels.) Then they found out it’s not permitted at wineries. What did they do? Picked out a winery in the East Bay or Sonoma because they CAN host weddings. So there went the room rentals in local hotels by wedding guests; meals consumed in our fine restaurants; souvenirs purchased in local shops; balloon rides over our magnificent valley; and tax revenues to the county…not to mention the valley wineries that didn’t make new DTC customers because these folks went to another valley’s tasting rooms instead.
    Right…permitting wineries to host weddings won’t necessarily add to the county’s businesses’ revenues. But prohibiting it makes it impossible to find out if it would. I bet some folks have some nice statistical studies out there showing how much add’l revenue these event bring to surrounding businesses.
    The county can and should police the body count and traffic count visiting our valley as that affects residents’ and businesses’ day-to-day life. But let the wine businesses decide what their definition of “marketing” is. They may CHOOSE “by appointment” to manage their permitted traffic; they may choose a few, key marketing events such as weddings…or not.

  3. Jason - March 2, 2010

    Pffft….the wedding issue is more about opening a Pandora’s box to other commercial events. The by appointment only has always been handled by asking (not requiring) guests to sign in when they enter – bingo! there’s your appointment and it happens to be for right now! Non issues…

  4. Tom Wark - March 2, 2010

    I don’t think the wedding issue is a pandora’s box at all. I think it’s about allowing wineries, under very strict conditions, to gain extra revenue and help promote their wines. This in no way affects the farming environment…In any way.
    As for the “By Appointment Only” it think it’s interesting that many people like the “Hush Hush get around approach” to simply allowing wineries to conduct their tastings the way they want to under realistic restrictions on numbers of guests that their use permit already allows.

  5. JohnLopresti - March 2, 2010

    How about instituting a Napa Valley Winery party master, like Napa River’s water master, the latter a solution to a problem also experienced in Sonoma County but a (“bureaucratic”) construct which ag in Sonoma County is attempting to avoid emulating, even though Sonoma County recently experienced a frost protection event river water extraction excess. Napa’s riverwater master would have arbitrated a similar clash.
    What I imagined, was Route 29, some places along which have numerous wineries close together; and simultaneous parties at, say, 4 adjacent wineries, each with loud music for the event, on some week in May of some year. The din might help control flocks of blackbirds around harvest, but people like to marry in Spring, it seems.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - March 3, 2010

    Seems to me, John, you allow one “master” bureaucrat in and soon you have another, and then another, and then more, until the levels of “master” bureaucracy intended to make things work actually stop everything from working properly–until the right person gets the right payment or as long as you can, as Jason alluded to, wink, wink past the rules.
    We used to rail against other countries for controlling people and businesses that way.
    The questions is: who’s looking for the right proportion of all three–state, community, and business–interests instead of looking after one interest?

  7. 1WineDude - March 3, 2010

    Totally with you on this, Tom W. I know folks who are on the Ag board who think this rule is outdated and needs revision.

  8. Brian - March 3, 2010

    I for one hope that the Ag Preserve people win and that nothing changes. Why? Because it’s job security my wife, who is the Wedding Manager for a major Sonoma winery and we LOVE the fact that all of the hotel/restaurant/winery/tourism business that WANTED to be in NAPA is all shuffled over to us because we don’t have knuckleheads thinking that their #2’s don’t stink!
    This isn’t about preserving anything other than those select few who have $20 million estate views (built on former Ag land, btw) not wanting to share with anybody else, but pretending it’s for a “higher cause” so that they can sleep better at night.

  9. Charlie Olken - March 3, 2010

    I have a somewhat different view. I have no problem with doing away with the By Appointment Only rule. It discourages wine lovers from visiting wineries that would love to have visitors, and frankly could use visitors to make their wines accessible to a wider audience. Then, By Appointment Only, would mean exactly that.
    Weddings, on the other hand, are not about wine. For the wineries, they are about money. Let’s say that you have a wedding for 100 people, and that they each consume a half bottle. That is four cases of wine at more or less $25 per bottle or about $1200–not a drop in the bucket, but not nearly as much wine as gets sold in your tasting room if you have a winery big enough to have a 100-person wedding. But, you charge $5,000 or more for the privilege. It is about the money.
    I am undoubtedly old-fashioned, but I think wineries should be about wine. And I think wine country should be about wine. If Sonoma wants to have weddings, well, I don’t much care for it, but I do think that Napa is lucky to have avoided that extra bit of non-wine activity. And if it is to be allowed, whether under the auspices of a wedding master, or some other set of controls, I hope it will be limited rather than wide open. The Napa Valley is not a wedding chapel in the vines.

  10. JohnLopresti - March 4, 2010

    ThomasP, Much of what I wrote was a parody, though with some suggestion Napa has done some things uniquely and tastefully. It is kind of funny that in this latter day Napa’s formerly poor country cousin Sonoma County has attracted the wedding reception trade. I trust Tom W’s acumen and attention to specifics to help Napa see the wisdom in some of the concepts he is suggesting. Then again, I recall a neighborhood uproar over a new winery’s permit for many social events in a previously quiet valley in Sonoma County culminating only last year with limited permits. Although I often work in a large remote ranch setting on the northcoast, and appreciate the isolation of these locales, I believe there is a niche for some of the marketing ideas Tom W is discussing, even if on a temporary basis. In the acoustic space near the incrementally developing NWP train, in Sonoma County, within a few years we will be seeing commuter trains soon, a benefit to the community; yet, somewhat of a regression soundscapewise compared to the past eight years during which the railroad had decommissioned its right of way entirely. There are tradoffs.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - March 5, 2010

    Sorry–hard to get parody when you don’t know the poster and those stupid emoticons aren’t there to help 😉
    No one likes to address the issue, but too many people populate the earth and growing–ultimately, “something’s gotta give,” because this place is not expandable and is in fact shrinking.

  12. Wine Tasting - August 13, 2010

    I like your blog. Welcome to our website about Wine and Food Travel. (

  13. Napa Wine Guide - August 2, 2011

    It’s almost 2012, time for them to revisit this. I’m sure this helped many wineries stay a float. This year is worse than last year, wineries need all the revenue possible.

  14. Jim Bevis - May 14, 2015

    What is the “Use Permit” limit. I was told last week by a winery that was purchased in 1985 by the current owner, that they were only allowed to have one tour per day of a maximum of four people. They indicated it was for “new” wineries – I wouldn’t have thought 1985 would fall into that category. Are there silly restrictions like that?

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