Full cup of winery worries

Kirigin Cellars off of Watsonville Road.

Wine lovers may find wine and no cheese at the next tasting
event in South County – or less public events at wineries
altogether – as local winemakers work with the county to clarify
existing regulations and the “rights” of a winery.
Wine lovers may find wine and no cheese at the next tasting event in South County – or less public events at wineries altogether – as local winemakers work with the county to clarify existing regulations and the “rights” of a winery.

After being “ignored by the county for several decades,” in the words of Sarah’s Vineyard owner Tim Slater, county planning and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors are engaged in discussions with winery owners like Slater, who says current proposals focus mostly on “proposing mystifying and Byzantine rules and regulations that would essentially destroy what progress has been made.”

A series of regulation-clarifying meetings between winemakers and county representatives has some growers on edge.

Called the “Wineries Working Group Meetings,” the gatherings were initiated in September by District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman with the goal of bolstering agritourism and helping the burgeoning wine industry in South County grow, rather than stymie growth.

“All the changes we’re looking at are to improve the situation,” assured Wasserman, who said the goal is to increase agritourism and open up the lines of communication between county government and wineries. “Right now, there is no real definition of what is allowed by right as a winery.”

Some growers, however, while recognizing Wasserman for his effort to “dislodge some of the formal hurdles,” as Kirigin Cellars owner Dhruv Khanna put it, are guarded against “heavy-handed and ignorant interference currently being offered as ‘help,'” said Slater.

He pointed to a proposition by county staffers to require event permits for gatherings attracting 50 or more people – but with “special event” permits costing several hundred dollars, and “use” permits costing around $10,000, why would anybody go through that “ludicrous” amount of effort unless a “large, guaranteed ongoing profit was going to be the result?” Slater queried.

Sheldon Haynie, co-owner of Lightheart Cellars in San Martin, echoed this concern of the county possibly “trying to regulate wineries” without “really understand(ing) the business.”

As it is, local growers are hung over from past ordeals with county staffers Haynie says are “not evenly experienced or trained.”

When it comes to logistics surrounding parking, septic tanks, hosting events, serving cheese or fruit with wine tastings (it’s not allowed without a food permit) or expanding facilities to accommodate more guests and activities, winemakers like Khanna don’t want it to become more of a hassle than it’s worth.

“I’m just shocked that one doesn’t need a permit to scratch ones’ nose,” he said.

Khanna did, however, commended the county fire marshal’s recent decision to slash water tank storage requirements (effective Jan 2012) from 45,000 gallons to 7,500 gallons – but that’s one issue conquered with many remaining, he said.

“It’s like they’re rolling barrels, and you’re falling over them,” Khanna said. “It’s nice that they stopped rolling one barrel.”

The policy revisal comes too late for Bill Holt, owner of Sycamore Creek Vineyards and Winery in Morgan Hill who shelled out $250,000 in 2009 for a fire suppression system that included a 100,000-gallon water tank.

Holt said Santa Clara County is noted for its “overkill” on laws and requirements.

“Their people have said ‘no, this is not about money,'” said Holt, who called the $400,000, five-year endeavor of getting his winery up to fire, health and safety codes “frustrating as hell.”

“Well, bull***,” he countered. “It is about money.”

According to the county’s annual crop report from 2010, wine grapes are the seventh highest grossing crop at $7,059,000. There are nearly two dozen wineries in South County, according to the Gilroy Visitor’s Bureau.

Khanna and Holt belong to the Wineries Working Group task force, which formed in August and meets weekly. It consists of area wine growers, staff from the SCC Department of Planning and Development, Jane Howard, Executive Director of the Gilroy Welcome Center and the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. The group plans on presenting to the Board of Supervisors its recommendation of possible changes by Spring 2012.

Whether the County Planning Commission adopts the suggestions compiled by the task force, however, makes boutique winery owners such as Tom Moller of Satori Cellars in San Martin uneasy.

“Everybody’s scared to death,” he said. “The way the regulations are right now is quite vague. I don’t know what the county is going do … I know everybody is nervous.”

Since the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau got involved with the meetings, Moller said “new rules” in the works “seem to be reasonable, assuming the suggestions the Farm Bureau is recommending go through.”

While the county may seemed to have “softened quite a bit,” however, Holt said it’s still “a control game” that’s “all about money.”

Supervisor Wasserman strongly emphasized the objective is “looking at what the existing laws are, and what the wine growers would like to see. It’s not becoming more restrictive … we are trying to enhance the rights of wineries.”

One standard under consideration is the number of guests necessitating a “special events” permit. The county has proposed 50 guests.

With other jurisdictions such as El Dorado County and San Luis Obispo County (which includes Paso Robles) enforcing a 50-person cap, “there’s a level of comfort knowing it’s working elsewhere,” said associate planner Jim Reilly with the County Planning Commission.

He said permits for one-time events cost around $1,000.

Pair this with the required $728 food permit for preparing/serving food, and “we’ll probably just not have it,” said Moller, of gatherings such as Satori’s wine and chocolate event.

Jennifer Williams, Executive Director of the SCC Farm Bureau, reminded that event permits only apply to “public” gatherings. Events for wine club members are considered private.

As for the food permit – something probably not that many of the wineries have, said Williams – wineries can legally put out crackers, sell packaged food or hire licensed caterers. Anything that requires the actual preparation of food (such as cutting up and putting out a plate of cheese, barbecuing, making and serving hors d’oeuvres) requires a California Food Handler’s Card, a special temporary event permit for a fixed establishment, or a small restaurant permit, according to the SCC Department of Environmental Health. Either permits cost $728, but the county’s online fee schedule does not clarify if this is an annual fee or required per event.

Which doesn’t do too much for Solis Winery’s popular Sausage and Syrah Grill, held annually on Labor Day Weekend. The event is not catered; and is open to the public.

Acknowledging this, along with the variety of shindigs hosted by wineries year-round, Williams noted, “A lot of these events don’t fit into current guidelines. And they should.”

Holt suggested there should be way more “wiggle room” than 50 people, while Slater pointed out the free summer concerts hosted at Sarah’s Vineyard sells just enough wine to pay the bands and employees.

Citing days where two tour buses with 75 people spontaneously stop by to picnic and wine taste, Khanna, whose property spans 48 acres, agrees 50 people is “way too small.”

Williams said the Wineries Working Group will include in its recommendations a request to exempt industry or marketing-related events from this permit requirement, such as Passport Weekend in October and March, where wineries hold wine barrel tastings, host live music and serve antipasti.

County parking regulations that require one parking spot for every two people is another area of concern.

One parking space for every two people “is not appropriate at all,” said Holt, who said the average number of wine-tasting passengers per vehicle is four to six. “It should be closer to four.”

Growers also want across-the-board consistency in enforcement.

After being told in a Nov. 17, 2005 letter from a county staffer he must have one toilet for every 25 guests during events, Khanna said reps from the county departments of Health and Planning told him during an Oct. 25 meeting this mandate does not actually exist.

It’s these types of discrepancies that fuel frustrations, explained Haynie, who pointed out senior county officials attending the wineries working meetings “are not the junior staff we have to deal with at the counter. Thus, there’s an additional frustration of having to educate the people who are regulating you at the detail level.”

This is why, for anyone who’s ever gone through the permitting process, “you’re just in a state of shock, afterwards,” said Martin Ranch Winery co-owner Dan Martin.

He recalled how Solis Winery put the kibosh on a new tasting room after four years of wrestling with county planners, in addition to forking out $250,000 on permit fees and paperwork.

Martin said he’s miffed the county won’t allow him to factor into fire safety regulations a 5 million gallon pond sitting on his property – even though Cal Fire used it to help put out the 2002 Croy Wildfire.

With the county “finally paying attention” to the success of nearby winery hotspots which are economic engines for Paso Robles, Napa and Sonoma, Martin highlighted the efforts of Wasserman and county representatives such as Reilly for attempting to make the permit processes “easier, less expensive and less burdensome.”

Wasserman said bringing county officials from the Fire, Environmental, Planning and Health departments to meet personally with wine growers is “unprecedented.”

“My hope is that what comes out of these meetings and workshops is an improvement to our existing laws and regulations,” he said. “That’s what the intent is, and we won’t know how good the overall effort is until it’s done.”

Still, growers like Moller are anxious for the final outcome in spring.

There’s a lot of room for regulation interpretations, he said. “It may come up to be benign, but most of us who have dealt with the county don’t like the county getting into anybody’s business.”

So far, Martin said the county has been “fairly receptive” to ideas and suggestions.

The bottom line is that wineries want to expand and improve, he said. It would be nice if the process were less nightmarish “so we can look forward to it, instead of dreading it.”

“I’m just shocked that one doesn’t need a permit to scratchones’ nose.”

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