Last Thursday, a virtual forum was hosted by Permit Sonoma County to supposedly start a conversation about licensing wineries in Sonoma. It drew more than 200 attendees, but many winemakers thought it was a farce.
Wine tourism and the DTC trade are all the more critical after the years of fires and the pandemic that has been going on for a year now.
At a time when direct trade with consumers is more vital than ever for winemakers battling restrictions due to Corona virus and fire rains, some factions of the wine community want events and tastings in high-traffic areas like Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and Sonoma Valley to be severely restricted.
Discussions with the county are underway. First, areas such as Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley were asked to propose guidelines, then the guidelines were asked to be more targeted, then input from stakeholders across the county would have been included, and finally, the views of wine producers were not considered.
Second, when the event policy should be clear and ready to be adopted by the various regions of the county, it seems that Permit Sonoma wants to impose a new mandate on the county without taking into account the arduous processes, meetings, negotiations and more, that the IBA has had to go through to come up with a viable plan. As one wine company representative said, it was a cycle of nonsense.
It’s frustrating and painfully slow to work with so many different people and programs at the county level, said Maureen Cottingham, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance. Therefore, it is much more productive to develop policies in small areas, as we have done in the Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek in their area.
Many members of the local wine industry have been working for years to find common ground with neighborhood groups, said Jeremy Crack, winemaker of Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery and president of Dry Creek Valley Winegrowers. There has been tremendous progress. In my opinion, Thursday’s meeting was an unnecessary step backwards and did not reflect all the work that had already been done. In recent years, the wine industry has faced an unprecedented number of challenges. In the future, we must look for ways to reduce the administrative burden and create a framework that adapts to a changing market. The idea that a lunch for ten for winemakers or an educational tasting for a distributor can even be considered an event demonstrates a different understanding of the basic daily needs of the wine business.
Despite the long tradition and success of agriculture in Sonoma and the healthy presence of wineries, some residents prefer to halt or even reverse the development of agribusiness, leaving wineries smaller and less visible and their hours of operation strictly limited. The few bad actors who caused nuisances have become problems that are addressed by the neighborhood and vineyard associations, but now a broader restrictive mandate applies to the entire neighborhood.
Thursday’s virtual forum was designed to spark discussion on topics such as: what is a wine event; what is food; whether live music should be allowed; whether events should take place outside of business hours; whether they should be regular business events; how large events should be; parking controls; and the frequency of events. However, the piecemeal attempt to involve stakeholders has led many to feel that the decisions about their future have already been made.
I think the most critical point in the whole dialogue between wineries is what’s real and what should be considered business as usual, says winemaker and dairy producer John Bucher, whose 360-acre farm is on Westside Road. Anything that happens during normal business hours and for which your facility has a permit (parking, restrooms, noise, food, etc.) should be considered an activity.
Wine tourism and the DTC trade are even more critical now, after years of fires and a pandemic that lasted a year. These overly restrictive touring regulations proposed by community groups negatively impact small wineries by making them more dependent on DTC activities for their survival, Bucher added.
Russian River winemaker Ricky Stancliffe, owner of the Trombetta Wines company, which produces pinot noir and chardonnay wines from the Petaluma Gorge and elsewhere, was equally upset. It’s frustrating when you realize the business meeting is over before it’s even started, says Stancliffe, who cites the urgent need for direct contact with customers in his small basement. Thanks to years of relationship building, Trombetta had a fantastic Christmas sales season that frankly saved the year 2020. However, they will not publish the 2020 year-end due to the smoke from last year’s fires and will have to rely on continued strong DTC sales for their current and future publications.
One phrase heard from grape producers, some of whom did not wish to be included, was that the cake had already been baked before Thursday’s work session, so the stakeholders’ contribution would be just the icing on the cake.
Permit Sonoma did not respond to requests for comment for this article.