The War for the Soul of Sonoma County – the Winery Working Group Battle

By: Kimberley Corcoran, Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross LLP


Today’s Booze Rules Post is from Carle Mackie, Power & Ross LLP.  CMPR is a general practice law firm, is expert in winery land use matters and regularly works with Hinman & Carmichael LLP. Kim Corcoran is a rising star at the firm and this is her report of the November 16th meeting of the Winery Working Group.


Wineries and Growers were both Well-Dressed and Organized at Monday Night’s Sonoma County Public Forum.

Much has already been written about the “nuts and bolts” of the November 16th meeting, but the energy and determination that permeated the room was remarkable..  The meeting was the one and only chance for the public to finally have its say in response to the hours and hours of meetings held by the County’s Winery Working Group, prior to hearings before the Planning Commission, then the Board of Supervisors. .  The members of that Group have been working for the last six months to provide direction to the County about new winery applications.  Each of the previous meetings had been held before an audience that was required to stay silent at all times.  Monday night was the time for the County to hear from all of the interested stakeholders, large and small.

Until Monday night, the wineries and growers appeared to be in two camps:  those who were following every breath and sigh of the Winery Working Group and those who didn’t even know that the Group had been formed, or that a new County ordinance was working its way down to them.  Although the discussion of the new ordinance is cast as applying only to new wineries, there is the distinct possibility that the County would apply any new ordinance to existing wineries (whether through applications for increased production or changes to use permits).  As such, whether they knew it or not, every winery and grower will likely be affected by the new ordinance. 

From the more than 500 people who met in Santa Rosa Monday night, the news had finally been disseminated.  More than half of the audience members were there to support the wine business.  It was a refreshing sight to see growers, winery owners, winemakers, and tasting room staff energized, motivated, and wearing brilliant green t-shirts or stickers (brilliant in both their color and their use as a statement).  The anti-winery contingent was there with their plain white nametags and a few placards but Monday night’s energy belonged to the wineries and growers. 

Three central themes came from this energized group.  First, agriculture does not mean grapes growing peacefully by themselves, beyond the touch of human hands.  Instead, agriculture means feeding your family and making the mortgage.  That requires one to sell the grapes/wine, and selling necessarily requires marketing efforts.  Speakers from small wineries presented a compelling case of why they needed what the County calls “events” and what they call distributor meetings or wine club dinners.  Without direct-to-consumer sales, only “the big guys” with their existing distributor outlets would be able to own wineries in Sonoma County.  The “big guys” had their say as well – without being able to hold distributor lunches or dinners, their business model fails as well. 

Another common theme was that the County should not regulate the type of activity going on at the winery.  Instead, the County should be regulating impacts – it shouldn’t matter whether there is a tasting menu, whether a customer sits or stands, or whether there is a fee for a wine club party.  No other business is in danger of having the County decide when, or whether, it can have business or staff meetings.  How can the County do that to wineries?

Finally, the wineries and growers challenged the opposition’s continued mantra of “rural character”.   Without high-end agriculture, the land would be sold for housing.  Housing would not recharge the aquifer, would not maintain the job base, and would be anything but “rural”.  The wineries and growers stepped up to the microphones Monday night by the dozens noting, among other things, that the first word on the Sonoma County seal is “Agriculture” and that pioneers like Sara Lee Kunde had worked tirelessly in the past to make agriculture economically viable.  Making a good living from agriculture is what allows for rural character in the first place. 

This is not isolated to Sonoma County.  Napa is dealing with their own ordinance battles, as is Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and the other wine-growing areas of the state.  Indeed, this “not in my backyard” approach to land use is also reflected in municipal ordinances restricting restaurants, nightclubs and wine stores in major cities throughout the state.

As the meeting approached 8:30 and then 9:00, many of the opposition group trickled out.  The winery and grower contingent just filled-in their seats behind them (about 100 people had not been allowed into the meeting room due to occupancy requirements and had been relegated to the lobby to watch the proceedings on a screen.)  When the meeting finally ended shortly after 9:00, the room was abuzz with energy from the green-clad growers and winery representatives finally being able to say their piece.  Indeed, one of the anti-winery speakers said to another as he was walking out of the meeting early, “The wineries – they’re organized.”  Ah – the power of working together toward a common goal.