I previously lived near the San Fernando Valley and in Orange County, which was then full of agriculture and open land. Now in those counties, agriculture is forever gone and replaced by massive development. Here in Santa Barbara County, the future of wine and agriculture is under assault by a minuscule number of self-appointed prohibitionists who find fault with the strategies that help keep the wine-agriculture industry in the black: grape processing, wineries’ “for profit” and “nonprofit events,” and tasting rooms on vineyard land. Although they say they want an honest and civil discussion of the issues, quite frankly, the wine industry is tired being “civil” in light of the relentless attack on our constitutionally protected right to grow, process, and sell wine.
Being “civil” is what got us into the position of seemingly going along with the “tainted” Planning and Development process. The proposed Revised Winery Ordinance (RWO) will increase the cost of winery development, severely restrict winery events, and ignores the billion-dollar economy of the wine industry. The support of the prohibitionists’ point of view by the county will result in the future failure of agriculture and lead to massive development in the county.
Greater regulation of landed wineries is disguised as a simple “revision” of the existing Wine Ordinance. Planning and Development’s ill-conceived process has so far cost over $250,000 and will eventually go for approval by the Board of Supervisors. Our agricultural lifestyle is at stake as well as the loss of massive dollars from diminished wine tourism. The threat is being driven by a few who personally don’t like others consuming alcohol. The prohibitionists are lone individuals, who, through a relationship with Supervisor Doreen Farr, managed to get this unwanted RWO process started.
The RWO will harm the wine industry in the following ways:
• Imposes an arbitrary “80 people at a time” limit on the number of visitors allowed in a landed tasting room. Room capacity restrictions regulated by the Fire Marshal already handle this.
• Decreases the number of viable parcels that can house wineries with tasting rooms by requiring a minimum of 10 acres. Countywide there are 128,995 parcels; 94.5 percent of them would not, under the proposed RWO, be allowed public visitation. Compared to the existing ordinance, this is a 22 percent increase in parcels that could not support tourism; it’s an immeasurable decrease in actual public visitation.
• Sends dollars out of our county. Currently 75 percent of the wine grapes grown in Santa Barbara County leave the county; thus, they provide no additional economic benefit. Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Winery stated at a recent seminar in Santa Ynez: “The county is losing 80 percent of the potential economic benefit of the wine industry because of our lack of fermentation space and tasting rooms for direct sales. A full 47 percent of dollars brought in by California wineries are from tasting rooms. In 2007, the localization value of a bottle of wine can be expressed as seven times the value of the grapes alone.”
• Limits the ability of small family wineries to process and sell their wines. These regulations hasten the day when small family wineries will be forced to break up their land into “ranchettes” because growing grapes will have become economically unsustainable.
• Reduces potential tourism. It is ludicrous to suggest that the proposed RWO will be “beneficial” to the wine industry or the county. Wine tourism will suffer, as will the lodging, restaurant, event, and retail industries. Visitors won’t be able to easily buy directly from small landed wineries if tasting rooms are not allowed.
• Reduces support for charities. Should a winery seek to hold events, the minimum parcel size proposed is 20 acres. Vineyards, or any other ag landholder in the county with no winery operation, can hold unlimited charitable events. However if a winery is added to a smaller parcel, it would not be able to hold events of any kind. On parcels 20 acres or larger, some events will be allowed, but the allowed events will include nonprofit events in the winery’s total count — forcing those wineries to decide between “profit” and “nonprofit” events. This will immeasurably harm our local charities.
How can restricting visitation to tasting rooms, reducing the venues available for charitable events, and dramatically reducing available parcels that are suitable for a winery with a tasting room be considered positive for the wine industry, agriculture, or tourism in the county? This is our future if the proposed RWO passes. Please speak up! Just because the county has spent two years and $250,000 on the “open” process of the proposed RWO doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do in the first place.
At the Planning and Development meetings I attended, almost no one in attendance spoke in support of creating a RWO. We were told that those who want greater restrictions on landed wineries were “intimidated” by the pro-winery crowd, and they therefore chose to present their case in writing or in private: where it could not be publically challenged. The prohibitionists’ ultimate goal is clearly the demise, or at least the economic strangulation, of the wine industry. But in actuality the prohibitionists are very small in number, so one has to ask, who at the county level is so anti-alcohol that this unwanted process got started in the first place? If the RWO process were not predestined to regulate and harm the wine industry, then we would have been consulted prior to the process being proposed! We were not consulted in advance and were entirely blindsided.
Write the supervisors and tell them that you live here because of the beauty and openness of Santa Barbara County and that you want the proposed RWO process entirely stopped. Otherwise, be prepared to see the remaining agriculture and wine industry slowly perish and massive development flourish.
Ross Jay Rankin is president of the Winegrowers of Santa Barbara County, Inc. – PAC. He is the owner and winemaker at Imagine Wine, LLC in Santa Ynez.