It is the best of times: Business is booming in Santa Barbara’s wine country, where rising quality continues to bring critical acclaim and more than a million tourists to town each year. Meanwhile, life remains bucolically beautiful in the Santa Ynez Valley, the region’s winemaking epicenter, which still offers a slower, quieter, quainter pace for visitors and residents alike, with cattle wandering the countryside, red tail hawks perched on lichen-drenched oak trees, and two horses in the yard. Much like what vintners strive to achieve with each vintage, you could say that the 2013 bottling of Santa Barbara Wine Country sits in perfect balance.
But are the worst of times on the horizon? From Happy Canyon and Roblar Avenue east of Highway 154 to Ballard Canyon near Buellton and Santa Rosa Road near Lompoc, some wine-country neighbors feel that the balance is slipping. They worry that the steady expansion of wineries and vineyards threatens to snuff out their arcadian existence, clogging their sketchy roads with buzzed tourists, ruining their silent evenings with loud parties, and turning farms into commercial districts. These neighbors insist that they’re not against production facilities themselves, just the drinking and entertainment elements that come with the package.
Winemakers, however, argue that tasting rooms and special events are required to survive and that there’s absolutely no hard evidence of drunken-driving problems or traffic-jams-to-be. They believe that isolated and small batches of loud neighbors are putting a stranglehold on the industry’s sustainable growth, which is arguably Santa Barbara County’s number-one economic engine. If the winery-application process gets any more onerous, winemakers warn that small-time, family-run operations will be priced out, opening the door only to big corporations that can afford the regulatory rigmarole — and when even they can’t hack it, the vineyards will be ripped out to make way for more ranchettes. And nobody will admit to wanting that.
Other wine regions have come to the same flash-point, when people who’ve bought homes out in the country come to realize that a vibrant wine country isn’t just undulating rows of vines. Growing grapes rarely pays the bills, so vineyard operations tend to evolve into wineries. And these days — unless you’ve got money for mass-marketing and a powerful distribution chain to sell your wine in grocery stores — winemakers move most of their product in face-to-face interactions with customers, hence the rise of tasting rooms, wine clubs, and the special events used to attract and retain fans. The Napa Valley, for instance, passed its own exhaustive ordinance more than 20 years ago and then revised it in 2010; both processes proved very contentious, but Napa’s restrictions haven’t hampered big and small wineries from prospering there. The creation of Santa Barbara County’s wine ordinance in 2004 was a comparably mild affair, a cooperative push led by winemakers seeking to streamline the process by using property size and vineyard acres planted to determine how big proposed wineries should be.
That model sufficed until the last couple of years, when the wine-country wrangling — which has caught a handful of would-be wineries in the permitting web — got loud enough for the County of Santa Barbara’s 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr to request a full review of the existing ordinance, a process that is now in full swing. This time, however, instead of leading the pack, winemakers feel like they got the last seat at the table, and believe that it’s much too soon for a costly review of rules that aren’t even nine years old, especially when there are only 10 actual complaints on the books. Nonetheless, winemakers are starting to realize that this process could bring more clarity to their lives, and perhaps even offer new tasting-room privileges, like food pairings. But conspiracy still hangs in the air, and winemakers foresee a difficult road ahead.
“I would like to see the sustainable and reasonable growth of the industry so I don’t have to leave,” said Wes Hagen, who grows pinot noir and chardonnay with his family on Clos Pepe Vineyards on Highway 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. “I love this county, and I want to have a job here until I die. But honestly, the way it’s looking, I work my butt off to promote this as a world-class wine region, and all I get back from the county and the naysayers is grief.”
On the Roads Again
For nearly a decade, I’ve been writing articles about the people and places of Santa Barbara wine country and have seen the daily struggles of making it work firsthand. But I’ve been covering regional planning issues for even longer and know that it’s better and cheaper for everyone to navigate conflicts before they explode. So last December, to see what was bugging wine-country residents, I hopped into a car driven by Cerene St. John, the reluctant leader of the fight against tasting rooms in Ballard Canyon. We pulled over on a particularly tight curve to meet Eric Gregersen, a descendant of one of the original Solvang Danes who retired to his family’s longtime property in 1998 near the Jonata and Stolpman vineyards.
“They left their front bumper in the field over there,” said Gregersen, pointing to where a Porsche Cayenne crashed onto his property a few months ago, a presumed drunken driver who left before getting caught. It’s those unreported incidents that wine-country neighbors use to discount a recent drunken-driving study conducted by the county’s public-works team, which concluded, “There has been no significant upward trend in collisions in Santa Ynez.” Traffic studies have also been done for parts of wine country, including one in the Roblar Avenue area that examined the impacts of what would happen if every existing and proposed winery there hosted an event at the same time. The answer? Not much, which is hard for the residents of the area to fathom.
To St. John and Gregersen, the common-sense connections are plain as day. “Bicycles with vehicle traffic with people who have been drinking wines,” said Gregersen, “it’s not a formula for a safe place to be.”
Bob Field is the man who fine-tuned this argument for Santa Barbara County. A former venture capitalist who retired to the Happy Canyon area 15 years ago and has served on various government committees, Field used his bureaucratic savvy to stop tasting rooms and special events from happening in Happy Canyon back in 2008, and he remains a vigilant watchdog valley-wide, issuing formal complaints, appealing winery approvals, haranguing county staffers, and helping other neighborhoods get ahead of the planning process. “Happy Canyon is copacetic,” said Field, who’s considered enemy number-one by many winemakers, “but we have the ability to have foresight and worry.”
Last week, Field drove me around Happy Canyon to show off the numerous places where minor driving mishaps turned into rollovers, run-over signs, and busted fences, as well as the leftovers of more serious drunken-driving incidents (none known to be winery-related). “To my knowledge, no one in Santa Barbara County has opposed any winery anywhere, and it’s the same for us,” Field explained. “We’re opposed to more tasting rooms and events in a few inappropriate locations.”
Very much in flux is the 154-Roblar neighborhood, which 22-year resident Greg Simon toured me through. “Roblar is the zero target for what’s going on,” said Simon, a former television executive from Pasadena who now raises champion thoroughbreds on a property with views stretching from Bridlewood to nearly the San Marcos Pass. “Right now, we are fully developed and in balance.” Any more growth, he believes, will hurt the harmony.
Though you couldn’t tell by driving by, 300 homes and more than 1,000 residents live in the hills between 154 and Figueroa Mountain, and all roads essentially lead to Roblar Avenue, where Vincent Winery has been trying to build a production facility, offer tastings, and host special events for a couple of years now. Approved by the County Planning Commission last year, the project is being appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which is set to decide the matter on February 5. Vincent would be about halfway between the existing Bridlewood and Roblar wineries, both of which have been hit with complaints in recent years — most recently for Roblar’s serving of food and for Bridlewood’s hosting of an Amazing Race film shoot, which included a low-flying helicopter that made for great television but freaked out neighbors.
Such transgressions only became violations when neighbors like Simon and Field report them to the county, where code enforcement is a strictly complaint-driven process. Even then, the punishments available are laughable, especially when dealing with corporations like E&J Gallo, which owns Bridlewood and could pay the applicable fines — $100 for an unpermitted special event, $25 for loud noise, and so forth — every day of the year without seeing a dent in their revenues. The complaint-driven enforcement is a continual pain for residents, who don’t like having to be the police, and winemakers don’t like it either, because, well, it makes their neighbors the police. While county planners explain that such policies are common because citizens generally don’t like the government constantly looking over shoulders, even Supervisor Farr admitted it’s not a perfect system, explaining, “The county has some really good and fair rules, but we’re not very good at enforcing them.”
Perhaps scariest to Simon and others across the valley, however, is the controversial TTT project, which seeks to build a winery and tasting room on a five-acre parcel along Roblar Avenue. “There’s 1,500 five-acre parcels in the valley,” said Simon of the possible precedent to be set by that proposal, which even some in the wine industry are privately questioning. “It’s a test case.”
Once approved, Simon believes TTT, Vincent, and other future wineries can later request and get more permission for events with ease, further impacting the neighborhood. “We love the wine industry here,” said Simon, who often takes visiting friends to tasting rooms when they come to town. “We do not love the entertainment component of the wine industry.”
Betting the Family Farm
In 1997, the Larner family purchased a 134-acre property at the southern mouth of Ballard Canyon near Buellton, and two years later started planting 34 of the acres with syrah, grenache, and other grapes. For a decade, the Larners sold all of the fruit to outside winemakers, but in 2009, Michael Larner began making his own wine, which was the next logical step for his dream to grow the family farm into a multigenerational business like the châteaux he’s seen in Europe. He began renting space in a production facility a few miles away but soon announced plans for a winery and tasting room on his property along with a request for special events.
Because it was the first winery proposed for the Ballard Canyon area in nearly 40 years — and only the second ever, as Rusack Vineyards occupies the former home of the Ballard Canyon Winery, originally built in 1974 — Larner figured that his proposal would sail through the permitting process and that he’d be pouring tastes of the 2009 wine on his property in 2011. But it’s now 2013, and due to opposition from neighbors over the special events and tasting room, the 38-year-old’s future sits in limbo, leaving the second-generation vintner wondering whether the third generation, namely his 2-year-old son, Steven, will ever make wine on the family land. Instead, in a business that has notoriously thin margins, Larner must pay rent to make wine at a facility in Buellton and more rent to pour tastes of his wine at the Los Olivos General Store, a retail boutique that his wife runs.
“We take agriculture, and we bottle it,” Larner told me last week, while his son yanked on the nearby vines. “We are the estate. It’s about getting dirt on your shoes from my vineyard. If you’ve taken away my tasting room, you’ve taken away my winery.”
That dire need to make and sell wine on-site and to host events to attract customers and promote the brand has become a much-repeated refrain for Santa Barbara winemakers who own vineyards, not to mention the hoteliers, restaurateurs, civic groups, and nonprofit organizations that rely on a robust, generous wine industry to thrive. And there’s plenty of room and reason to grow, as today — even with 24 wineries approved since 2004, and about 120 countywide — 80 percent of the grapes grown in Santa Barbara are trucked out of the county for processing by wineries in other regions, where their value grows fivefold. “If 80 percent of the fruit was leaving Burgundy, the people would fucking riot,” said Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, arguing that plenty more jobs, taxes, and other community benefits would come with more wineries here. “They would close the streets down with tractors until the government fixed it.”
But instead of help from the government, winemakers feel like they’re getting the opposite. “What people don’t understand is that we are competing on a global scale,” said Peter Stolpman, the 30-year-old who runs Stolpman Vineyards and has become a leader of the Central County Coalition, a strategy-setting group for vintners, hoteliers, and others who benefit from the wine industry. “Europe is sitting on lakes of wine, but here, our neighbors are handcuffing us just because they bought houses in an agricultural area.”
The conflict between residential pockets in agricultural areas is not unique to Santa Barbara. “People don’t get that when you buy agricultural land, you are buying next to agricultural production, whether it’s there today or will be there tomorrow,” said Susan Petrovich, a longtime land-use attorney in Santa Barbara who’s worked on both sides of this issue, representing the Larners and the Vincent Winery but also neighbors to Claxton Winery, a proposed development on Refugio Road. “It’s the same problem we are having all over the state. When people have less and less ties to agriculture, they don’t appreciate it, and they don’t want it around them. They want to be the only residents in a pristine open field.” And they can’t expect those lands to sit fallow forever, argued Jim Fiolek, head of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association. “No one gets into agriculture to do nature conservancy,” he said.
But is wine strictly agriculture? Winemakers see their tasting rooms as no different than a farm stand, but critics disagree, pointing to tasting rooms that have become mini-markets selling all sorts of goodies. “I don’t know what county they’re living in,” said Steven Pepe, who owns Clos Pepe Vineyards, “but there isn’t any agricultural land along Highway 246 that doesn’t have commercial activities.” With folks across the Santa Ynez Valley selling alpaca wool, lavender oil, potted plants, emus, pigs, horses, peaches, strawberries, apples, and more, Pepe and the winemaking community believe that direct-to-consumer sales are an integral part of any small farming business.
Alcohol throws a slight curve into the mix, but winemakers say profits depend on sober people. “We can’t have drunks,” said Fiolek, who frequently partners with the Sheriff’s Department to train tasting-room hosts to spot impaired visitors. “They don’t buy, and they scare away people who do buy.” In fact, some winemakers argue that the neighbors’ preferred alternative — which is to cram tasting rooms and tourists into urban areas like Solvang and Los Olivos, where nearly four dozen now operate door-by-door — is far worse, creating a traffic-choked, bar-crawl experience.
As for special events — or what some of the critics like to deride as “parties for profit” — vineyard owners say they are a major way to attract and retain customers, the most reliable of whom enlist in a winery’s wine club, often because they feel a special connection to the property and get to visit for winemakers’ dinners. Historically, a lot of those events have also been to raise money for charities, but complaints have caused the county to examine those gatherings, as well — most prominently when complaints caused the annual fundraiser for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) to be moved from Bridlewood to Sunstone Winery at the last minute in 2011. “If you make them count these events as one of their [permitted] events, the wineries aren’t gonna want to do them,” said Dean Palius, the director of Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People, a social-services organization. “That’s basically going to hurt nonprofits, who are really struggling to make ends meet.”
Like many Santa Barbara County residents, plenty of winemakers moved here because tight rules about development have preserved the region’s rurual beauty, and they recognize the irony in swimming against that tide. “It’s a razor’s edge we walk,” said Brandon Sparks-Gillis, the 38-year-old who makes wine under the Dragonette Cellars label. “The thing that draws us here is the same thing that makes it difficult to do business here.” He wants the critics to know that most winemakers want to keep it that way, but that they must proceed with care. “If you put up a lot of these roadblocks that prevent a small, family-run business from achieving success,” he explained, “then you are really going to create a situation where the county won’t have a choice but to allow bigger projects to come through that have the resources to put up a bigger legal fight.”
Or worse. “If you don’t have grapes on that land,” said Kevin Merrill, head of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, “probably the next thing you’re going to raise there are ranchettes.”
Michael Larner, meanwhile, remains stuck in the waiting game, forced by the county to endure a full environmental review with a quarter-million-dollar price tag he can’t afford. “I still don’t have a clear path on how to proceed,” said Larner, who’s finally starting to understand why his Ballard Canyon neighbors are putting up a fight, even though he think he’s done everything to assuage their concerns, offering to install noise meters, shuttle in guests, and reduce his number of events. “They’re fighting the precedent,” said Larner. “No matter what I say, I can’t beat the fear.”
Planners in the Middle
All of these anxieties and animosities were set to collide in public one evening last August at the Marriott in Buellton, where the County of Santa Barbara hosted the first informational meeting and public-comment session on the winery-ordinance revision process. More than 200 people showed up, most of them sporting “Wine = Jobs” stickers, and many of the speakers demanded to know what the specific complaints were, why this process had begun, and who wanted to shut down the industry.
One of the speakers was the Farm Bureau’s Kevin Merrill, who helped write the first ordinance when he was head of the Central Coast Wine Growers’ Association, but believes opening the entire ordinance for review less than nine years after it was implemented is an “overblown” way to address “a few bad apples.” Said Merrill, “I don’t think you need to focus on rewriting the ordinance — you need to focus on those people that have the problems and work together with them.”
But aside from Cerene St. John and a couple of others, there weren’t many concerned neighbors that August night, with just three of the evening’s 43 speakers expressing anything but utmost praise for the wine industry. Some of the neighbors later told the county that they felt “intimidated,” that they wouldn’t be attending future meetings, and that they preferred to submit their concerns privately over email and the telephone. “I’ve never seen anyone in the Santa Ynez Valley be timid about voicing their opinion,” said Merrill, but others became even more suspicious, believing that wine-country critics have already pulled the required strings to get their way.“They know it’s in the bag,” said Pepe, “so why show up?”
That’s not the case, according to 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who said that she must represent all of her constituents, including those who “aren’t going to speak directly with their neighbors or go to a meeting.” She requested that the ordinance be reviewed after hearing a growing “rancor and divisiveness” out of wine country, and the other supervisors agreed, setting it as a top long-range planning priority. “When you start hearing the same things from different people in different parts of the valley and it’s creating polarization among my constituents, I felt that it needed to be looked at,” explained Farr, who confirmed that the driving concerns are special events and, to a lesser extent, tasting rooms. But Farr hopes the process will provide winemakers with more clarity, and she reminded that any changes only apply to new wineries, not existing permits.
Following the August meeting, the planning department waited for the grape harvest to finish and then started the revision process with a series of issue-focused hearings. In November, I attended the one about tasting rooms, held in a conference room on the fourth story of the county building in downtown Santa Barbara. Every one of the 40 or so seats was taken, mostly by wine industry supporters, but there were at least two concerned Ballard Canyon residents there.
Format-wise, it was one of the odder public hearings I’ve seen — basically, people were supposed to blurt out pros and cons as the planners scribbled them down — and it started with the wine industry representatives hammering the planning staff for answers on why this was happening at all. But after about 20 minutes of venting, the wine industry folks seemed to realize that the planners weren’t the enemies and that they could make the process work in their favor, so they began contributing in a productive way. There were even direct conversations between winemakers and the concerned neighbors, and for a brief second, the ice that’s been building for the past couple of years seemed to start melting. The subsequent meetings about food service (on December 13) and special events (on January 10) were also reportedly productive, and there is hope for the same at the remaining meetings on neighborhood compatibility (February 11) and permitting/enforcement (February 21).
Once complete, the planning staff will take all of the comments and start integrating them into the existing ordinance, with a proposal going to the Board of Supervisors no sooner than this summer. Reassuring everyone that the process is “very transparent” and not rigged, Jeff Hunt, the county’s deputy director of long-range planning, explained, “The best outcome will address the concern of neighbors while streamlining the process for the wineries. That’s really the intent: to have both sides agree on the final product before we go to the board.”
Looking North to Napa
Considered the star of the American wine world, the Napa Valley is also home to an effective and exhaustive set of wine-country rules. Passed in 1990 after a process much like Santa Barbara is enduring today, the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) prevented any new wineries from hosting weddings, prescribed limits on other special events, and mandated that tastings be by appointment only, among other rules. In 2010, after a request that the rules be relaxed to help in the bad economy, the Napa Valley Vintners association offered to take a fresh look and only made two major changes: allowing wineries to host business meetings and to offer food pairings so long as they aren’t profiting from the foods served.
Though he sees the appointment-only rule as antiquated, Napa Valley Vintners’ Rex Stults believes that the WDO is a good model. “It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t worked,” said Stults, whose organization represents most of the 450-plus wineries in Napa. “If you were to talk about crown jewels of American agriculture, I think we’d be in the discussion.” And it works for wineries, too. “If you meet all the criteria, it’s not that hard,” said Stults of the permitting process.
Such clarity is what Santa Barbara winemakers hope will come out of the ongoing process here. “We need to not make it so burdensome and restrictive that the encouragement is to get around the rules,” said Steve Fennel, who worked for years in Napa before signing on as winemaker at Sanford Winery in 2006. “That’s not what anybody wants to do.”
Concerned neighbors are hopeful, too, including former county supervisor Gail Marshall, who helped draft and pass the first winery ordinance in 2004 but is happy for the ongoing review. “I don’t think anyone is trying to kill the wine industry in the Santa Ynez Valley,” she explained. “It’s great, but I also understand that balance is a key word in everything you do, and we’re just a little out of balance right now.”
Whether or not winemakers agree, they have no choice but to come to the table. “Obviously, we have to find a balance,” said Fennel. “Vineyard owners and winery operations are truly concerned about their neighbors’ well-being. But this is not a hobby. It may be a passion, but it’s a business, and we have to make money to be sustainable.”