In Depth: Central Valley county clamps down on winery events
by Les Mahler, CVBT Correspondent

September 9, 2013 2:34pm
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•  UPDATED on 9/10 @ 3:56 p.m. with Tuesday afternoon's vote

•  Controversial regulation imposed for one year

•  “I feel so betrayed, it’s all so political”

The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 Tuesday to impose a one-year moratorium on granting additional event permits to wineries for things like weddings.

Voting in favor of the tighter controls were Steve Bestolarides, Frank Ruhstaller and Carlos Villapudua. Voting against was Ken Vogel. Not in attendance was Bob Elliott.

It was at the board’s July 23 meeting when Messrs.Vogel and Bestolarides stated their desires to finish the process of finalizing the wine ordinance. Mr. Vogel told the CDD staff, “It’s time to get it done,” while Mr. Bestolarides, citing the board’s recent infusion of money to the CDD’s budget, said, “There were funds in the budget this fiscal year to do as much,” according to a Stockton Record report.

Mr. Bestolarides’ reference was to the board’s passing a budget in June that included $85,000 to hire an associate planner to work on the wine ordinance.

At their budget meeting, supervisors voted to increase the CDD’s budget by $547,247 as part of a package that includes increases for “salary and benefit adjustments” as well as the “addition of five positions”; some of the money for the increase is expected to come from fees and inspections, according to the county’s 2013 budget.

The approval for the CDD to hire an assistant planner to work on the wine ordinance, comes several months after a group of winery owners, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, Lodi Chamber of Commerce and Visit Lodi!, put together a plan on winery marketing events as part of the wine ordinance.

And while the assistant planner is expected to do other work within the CDD, the main goal will be dealing with the wine ordinance, according to Chris Rose, senior deputy county administrator. “It kind of needs to be amended.”

But Kerry Sullivan, director of the CDD, said the person to be hired is not a wine ordinance consultant. And supervisors have not directed CDD to hire anyone as a “consultant on the wine ordinance.”

During the recession, CDD had to layoff almost half its staff, Ms. Sullivan said.

“What we did is ask for additional positions, including associate planners to work on normal type of planning,” she said. “We could use someone on the wine ordinance or other type of applications. This would free up others to do work on the wine ordinance.”

Even then, it’s up to supervisors to make the decision as to whether to work on the wine ordinance, Ms. Sullivan said. “It’s entirely their call.”

According to Ms. Sullivan, Mr. Rose was mistaken about a wine ordinance consultant; “perhaps it was a miscommunication,” she said, adding that she would call him to get him “on the same page.”

While Ms. Sullivan refuted what Mr. Rose said would be a consultant to work on the wine ordinance, the county’s own budget for the CDD clearly shows that the department will be hiring what is called “an associate planner to work on the Wine Ordinance and Development Title.”

“We don’t know if we’re going to hire a consultant; we don’t know if we’re going to use a wine consultant or not,” Ms. Sullivan said.

The present-day wine ordinance, which became effective Aug. 23, 2002, “is vague and sometimes difficult to interpret,” according to a report from the CDD to supervisors. But then, the first wine ordinance was never set in stone and according to the report, it was expected that the ordinance would be modified over the years.

Supervisors were contacted for comment prior to Tuesday's meeting. Only Mr. Elliott replied but only to have all questions referred to Ms. Sullivan. In a separate email response, Mr. Elliott said, “I have not asked for any renewed consideration of the winery moratorium proposal. However, the County Community Development Department does plan to consider revisions to the county’s Winery Ordinance.”

Bruce Blodgett of the Farm Bureau refused to comment: “You don’t know what you’re talking about; call me when you understand the issues,” Mr. Blodgett said before hanging up.

While Tuesday’s discussion is being promoted by the Community Development Department as another step in the revamping of the wine ordinance, others see it as a rush to put into place a more restrictive policy that would hamper wineries in their marketing events – given the recent turn of events, including the Planning Commission’s move to bring back the moratorium – that effort failed.

Pat Patrick, CEO and President of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, who was at the Planning Commission’s meeting in July, said the wine moratorium came up during the end of the meeting, and it was done quietly and at the behest of county supervisors.

When it failed, he and others took that failure as a victory for winery owners. “I told them it was a job killer; no way it’s not a job killer,” he said.

“I think there’s something going on,” said one winery owner who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution by the supervisors, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau and the Planning Commission. “I feel so betrayed, it’s all so political.”

The owner also questioned the timing of the recent events given that Mr. Vogel’s term expires in December 2014.

“As soon as he’s ready, he’s going to make his move,” the owner said. “And it will probably be political; I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Layne Montgomery, owner of M2 Winery on Turner Road in Lodi, wasn’t sure what to make of the recent moves by county supervisors.

“I don’t know how to process all this,” Mr. Montgomery said. “I understand the angst and the conflict between preserving agricultural and history versus commercialization. A lot of it is NIMBY -- not in my back yard.”

Mr. Montgomery said when he first started his winery in 2007, few people would come by: “We would sit inside and hope someone would pull in, and around 2 p.m., someone would stop and say they were killing time before a funeral.”

All that has changed nowadays, he said. “People are coming from other states, from other parts of California for Lodi wines; they’re sick and tired of Napa and Sonoma.”

All those visitors to Lodi wine country are not only good for wineries but also good for the city of Lodi and the county, he said. “They’re spending money at gas stations, restaurants, the Hampton Inn; they’re spending money here and that’s generating sales tax.”

Mr. Montgomery said he was perplexed as to why anyone would stifle an industry that brings money to the community. “I don’t understand the motivation to kill a prosperous growing part of the economy,” he said.

While Mr. Montgomery and the other winery owner remain concerned about what a new wine ordinance might bring, Tim Holdener of Macchia Wines in Acampo said he supports what supervisors are doing.

“It’s a kind of a good thing,” said Mr. Holdener, who was a member of the Winery Ordinance Task Force. “That entity did it but now we need to write it down.” For those wineries who have concerns now, the time to speak was when the task force drafted their rules, he said.

Although he sided with supervisors in crafting a new wine ordinance, Mr. Holdener did have concerns about the county being able to revoke a winery’s license based on several criteria, including: fraud, violation of condition and adverse impacts.

“If you do everything in compliance, it seems like a back-door attempt to modify someone’s license.”

According to Nancy Beckman, president and CEO of Visit Lodi!, the wine tourist industry brings in about $400 million annually to Lodi. And she reiterated Mr. Montgomery’s statement that it’s not just the wine industry that benefits from the tourists and marketing events.

“Wine tourists bring in over 2 million people annually, and it’s been increasing,” she said. Those visitors bring in more people through friends and family, and they end up spending the nights in the county; in the morning, they eat breakfast locally and then buy gas for the trip home. “It’s economic development pure and simple,” Beckman said.

The winery owner who requested anonymity said revising the wine ordinance to exclude marketing events would not only hurt the wineries but also devastate the local economy.

“Holding up this fragile economy is one industry; it’s important that they have events and weddings, whatever it takes to make the economy remain vibrant; why should they want to shut that down,” the owner said.

For the San Joaquin Farm Bureau, Board of Supervisors and Community Development Department, the idea behind a wine ordinance is about writing into law how wineries do marketing events and how many; the fear was that with more wineries in San Joaquin County, the more wineries were hosting events such as weddings and concerts; more marketing events that the county, the Farm Bureau and residents claimed had anything to do with the grape or the wine.

The wine ordinance became a hot-button topic last year when county supervisors tried to put into place a moratorium on events at wineries.

The effort was spurred by the relocation of Stama Winery from Lockeford to Davis and Turner roads in Lodi.

Residents in the area feared that the owner, Konstantino “Gus” Kapiniaris, was bringing in an event center disguised as a winery, said David Lucas, owner of Lucas Winery on Davis Road, in a 2012 interview. It wasn’t just Stama Winery’s relocation and plans to build what seemed to be an event center first instead of winery that prompted the onslaught of complaints and anger.

According to residents in the area at the time, it was more that wineries were becoming an event center first, that they were holding marketing events such as weddings and concerts; the events had nothing to do with wine, residents said.

And residents at the time had only to point down the road at Abundance Winery on Turner Road. With Abundance Winery moving from Davis Road to Turner Road, neighbors complained about a host of problems, including parking on the street and late-night events which brought night music to the neighborhood almost every weekend.

Trying to avoid situations like what Abundance neighbors confronted was the purpose of the Winery Ordinance Task Force, Mr. Patrick said.

“Our goal was to come up with these solutions that caused supervisors to reach for a moratorium; we spent hundreds of hours and came away with what we believe was a body of work that would satisfy neighbors, in terms of noise and parking issues,” he said.

When the task force finished its work, the recommendations were presented to the Farm Bureau, Mr. Patrick said. But that report never made it to the new Planning Commissioners.

Now, with supervisors meeting Tuesday and with an assistant planner starting to work on a new wine ordinance, Mr. Patrick worries that task force’s work might not be included in any new wine ordinance;

“We certainly don’t get any love from Kerry (Ms. Sullivan) for what we’ve done.”

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