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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sonoma County, be careful what you ask for (part 1)

Sonoma has long played second fiddle to Napa Valley. Sure, there was some jealousy, but it definitely ignited the competitive spirit that drives businesses to succeed. Sonoma County's wine business and its related tourism has definitely succeeded. In 2012 two-thirds of the county's $20 billion economy was wine and wine tourism. As the overall economy improves this is only going up.

With success comes issues.

Napa Valley

Anyone who has been to Napa Valley on a summer weekend in the last couple of decades knows what the traffic is like. Imagine yourself a resident (lots of people do, actually). Now imagine you work a regular Monday through Friday job and have the weekends to do your errands. Think of the traffic you'd have to fight your way through just to get to the line in Costco!

I have joked with people about not putting yourself in a position of having to make a left turn on the main road through Napa Valley, Highway 29, as you're likely to be sitting there until November  waiting for traffic to clear. There's the little several block long town of St. Helena, pop. 4,000, in the middle of the valley where the approach into town often backs up for a couple miles.

Sonoma County

Unlike Napa, Sonoma County has lots of back roads and the wineries are more spread out. There has been significant growth in the county's wine industry in recent years. I don't think anyone will argue that it's a bad thing as the job growth has been substantial and the current unemployment rate is low. It's the cropping up of new tasting rooms almost weekly, it seems, that is the issue.

The debates revolve around the two key problems usually associated with growth -- traffic and noise.

The county recently came down on two wineries who were having more special events than they were permitted to have. Special events bring traffic and often noise. These wineries were turned in by their rural neighbors. A new large winery project by one of these offenders has been shelved for now.

There has been push-back on wineries asking to hold nighttime events including weddings as many neighbors have said, "Enough." The question has been raised, "If you need weddings or a restaurant at your winery to make ends meet maybe you shouldn't be in the wine business at all." Recently, Food Network personality Guy Fieri had his request to build a winery and event center on a quiet county road shot down. It was obvious that it wasn't so much about the wine as it was about having a place to host parties.

A number of people own vacation homes in Napa and Sonoma. They often rent these homes out to groups of people. There have been complaints about parties and the associated noise and litter as these people have come for a good time and don't even consider there might be neighbors who actually live nearby.

A few months ago a Napa winery wanted to plant a large vineyard in the highly regarded Sonoma Coast appellation. There are few neighbors as coastal Sonoma County is sparsely populated. The winery was going to cut down quite a few trees, many second-growth redwoods. People put up such a stink the winery abandoned their plans.

A large winery and distillery is planned for just outside the town of Sebastopol, but it seems no one is in favor of this right now. An Indian tribe wants a 200-room resort and winery outside the town of Windsor and the locals are saying no, loudly.

These issues, special events at rural wineries, vacation home rentals, vineyard plantings, and what's seen as the over-development of wineries, have become major issues in the last year or so. The economy is improving and business is booming and not everyone is happy about all aspects of the growth.

Water, of course, is an issue now as wineries require lots of water.


What is happening in the cute, popular wine towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma plus what the future has in store.