‘Happy’ winery rules

Matt Oetinger is the owner and wine maker at Fernwood Cellars on

Local winery owners are “pretty happy” with recommended revisions to county ordinances that would make it less of a headache to legally host events, install a commercial kitchen, showcase live music or invest in agritourism accommodations – but the optimism is laced with caution as proposed changes are subject to upcoming reviews.

Sarah’s Vineyard owner Tim Slater doesn’t think the recommendations will significantly help grape growers, but “it doesn’t look like it will hurt anybody,” he said. “In general, it looks very positive for wineries.”

Undercurrents of concern haven’t evaporated, however.

Viticulturists such as Kirigin Cellars owner Dhruv Khanna questioned the likelihood of updated recommendations surviving intact as they’re drafted into a zoning ordinance and moved to the county Planning Commission Feb. 2 for review.

“This draft is pretty good, but who knows if it becomes law or not?” said Khanna.

Following a series of monthly meetings aimed at balancing the “practical needs of an evolving wine industry” (a “spirited” process Lightheart Cellars co-owner Sheldon Haynie described as “a lot of head banging” between “strong willed, passionate people”), the Wineries Working Group drafted last week its policy revisions that regulate wineries in Santa Clara County.

Known as WWG, the group consists of a dozen local winery owners, the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, staff from the County Department of Planning and Development, Division of Agriculture, Department of Environmental Health, the Fire Marshal’s Office and Jane Howard, executive director of the Gilroy Welcome Center. The gatherings were initiated in September by District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman with the goal of helping the burgeoning wine industry in South County grow.

“It’s been a little spirited. But realistically, I think the county is trying to help,” said Haynie, of the WWG’s attempts to address bureaucratic red tape – or in some cases, lack of policy altogether – that stymies winery growth instead of bolstering agritourism.

Sycamore Creek Vineyards owner Bill Holt said he also agrees “for the most part” with the recommendations; something he hopes are “very doable and workable for everybody.”

A handful of topics were hashed out during the WWG meetings. Some agenda items included a winery’s ability to serve morsels of cheese with wine tastings (it’s not allowed without a food permit); the unpopular possibility of requiring permits for gatherings of 50 or more people; the absence of provisions concerning promotional signage; or rules against off-site tasting facilities downtown, to name a few.

Should the new policy recommendations be cemented, Haynie said, “I’m pretty positive about what has been brought forward.”

After the Feb. 2 Planning Commission workshop where the WWG and other stakeholders will have an opportunity to review the draft and provide input, a public hearing on the zoning ordinance will take before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on an undetermined date in the spring.

It’s during these next stages that “I don’t know where the (county) staff itself might attack these provisions, even though they were part of putting them together,” said Khanna.

After reading through the proposed ordinance revisions Monday, Satori Cellars co-owner Tom Moller echoed Khanna’s concern.

“It certainly seems more positive than what I’ve been hearing through the grapevine,” observed Moller, who noted the recommendations look “OK” at face value. “But whenever the government comes to help, I get nervous.”

The list of policy revisions spans seven pages and covers a plethora of protocol.

Among the items, “special events” stood out during WWG meetings as a heated issue. Significant policy recommendations in this area would give the green light, for example, to Solis Winery’s popular Sausage and Syrah Grill held annually on Labor Day Weekend – without requiring paperwork or a $1,000 administrative permit.

This is part of the WWG’s proposal for less restrictive rules involving small gathering allowances; non-commercial (private) events; or industry/marketing events. There are currently no provisions for these items.

For a small gathering allowance not requiring an administrative permit, the WWG recommends an “allowed by right” cap of 100 attendees for wineries that are five acres or smaller; a 200 person cap for wineries between five and 20 acres; and a 300 person cap for wineries between 20 and 300 acres.

Prior to this, county staff considered 50 as the standard number of guests necessitating the $1,000 administrative permit.

Recommendations also suggest private events and industry/marketing events such as Passport Weekend, barrel tastings, wine club shindigs and harvest festivals be allowed with no attendance caps.

For Haynie, who runs Lightheart Cellars in a residential San Martin neighborhood with his wife, the policy revisions are moving in the right direction.

Whereas current county provisions don’t allow a commercial kitchen to support winery events without a use permit (which costs $14,732 when you factor in associated applications and environmental reviews), new recommendations suggest commercial kitchens be allowed regardless of a winery’s size; or whether the winery possesses an administrative permit or use permit (Department of Environmental Health standards still apply, however).

If proactive policy tweaks go into effect, “we would be more willing to look at making some investments in our business that would hopefully be beneficial,” noted Haynie, who mentioned his interest in installing a commercial kitchen where a private chef could prepare tapas or hors d’oeuvre during gatherings.

Haynie translated this point to overnight tourist accommodations; another issue discussed during the WWG meetings that resulted in less restrictive recommendations for bed and breakfasts, hostels, cottages, yurts and RV ordinances on winery properties.

The short-term agricultural worker housing provision stands out in particular.

WWG recommendations suggest growers be allowed to utilize onsite temporary employee housing as agritourism accommodations for up to 72 hours per stay, provided the approved units are not occupied by workers at the time.

“If the temporary agriculture housing can be multipurpose, then there is an incentive for me to put more money into it and make it nicer,” explained Haynie, offering a theoretical example. “If my worker quarters can become a hostel in the off-season for biker tourists, that’s a path for me to recover from my investment.”

Like Haynie, Khanna said the WWG meetings have instigated a much-needed exchange of ideas, suggestions and “a healthy airing of issues.”

For Khanna, however, who shelled out $300,000 for county-related regulations over the past six years, “bumbling bureaucracy” is the biggest roadblock when it comes to winery success in South County.

While lauding Wasserman’s efforts to bolster agritourism, Khanna said the outstanding issue is “bureaucratic obstructionism” from county administrative staff who “misinterpret laws” and unnecessarily request the processing of “more forms, more drawings, more maps and more changes that don’t impact anybody, but keeps (county) staff employed and raises the cost to private business people.”

If the county really wants to encourage agritourism, Tim Slater at Sarah’s Vineyard said dollars speak louder than ordinances.

“Frankly I don’t see that any of this was necessary in the first place,” he rationed. “(The county) should see about providing marketing funds, or direct assistance in obtaining federal grant money to promote our area within the county, across California and across the country.”

These are several significant changes that the Winery WorkingGroup (WWG) has proposed for county polices regulating Santa ClaraCounty Wineries.
– Small gathering allowance: Rather than having to apply for a$1,000 administrative permit, the WWG recommends an “allowed byright” cap of 100 attendees for wineries that are five acres orsmaller; a 200 person cap for wineries between five and 20 acres;and a 300 person cap for wineries between 20 and 300 acres. Priorto this, county staff considered 50 as the standard number ofguests necessitating the $1,000 administrative permit.  
– There were no provisions for non-commercial private events orindustry/marketing events, except those allowed as “special events”via a $14,732 use permit. The WWG proposes all wineries be allowedto host non-commercial events and industry/marketing events (suchas Passport Weekend) by right, without a use permit.
– The WWG recommends wineries be allowed to install a commercialkitchen to support winery events without a use permit.
– The WWG recommends amplified music be allowed, subject tolimitations of the noise ordinance.
– The WWG recommends wineries be allowed, with a special permit,to have bed and breakfast, hostels, cottages, yurts and RVaccommodations onsite. It also recommends wineries be allowed toutilize short-term agricultural worker housing as guestaccommodations during limited time periods when not in use byworkers.

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