Endangered Species: Is There A Future For Small Family Farms In Napa Valley?
Updated: Jun 10, 2019
In 1989 our Napa political leaders known as the Board of Supervisors (BOS) put into place a document that dictates what we, the vineyard and winery owners, are allowed to do with our property. The document created 30 years ago is called the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO). The WDO states that you must apply and obtain a winery permit to build a winery and have guests on your property for tasting with direct to consumer sales.
The permit process takes 2 to 5 years at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 with no guarantee that you will be awarded a permit. The permit gives you the privilege to build a winery at a cost of 1 million to 5 million dollars. It is not only cost prohibitive for the small family farm, but also not cost effective to spend that much money to produce a few thousand cases of wine. Many existing wineries have additional capacity at their facilities for small family farms & vineyards to do custom crush.
A few important points: if we do not need to build a winery/tasting facility then we:
-Do not have to put in new/upgraded septic systems
-Do not have to pave over vineyard land
-Do not need to cut down trees
-Do not need to employ additional resources, which means less traffic for construction & employees
Simply, it is more environmentally friendly if we do not need to rip out vineyards and build a winery.
For 26 years (1989-2015) the BOS chose not to enforce many of the regulations in the WDO. Small family farms have been doing tastings on their property since this industry started doing business. It is very much a part of the legacy of Napa Valley. Small family farms had been doing tastings and sales on their properties and at least 50% of their income comes from those tastings & sale of their products. In 2014/2015 the county hired a new assistant district attorney with staff and a mission to do sting operations for those not living to the letter of the law. They chose not to inform anyone they would be enforcing the law and started fining farmers and wineries. The fines continue today and amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
Recently, the BOS drew a “red line in the sand” and stated they would allow wineries to file adjustments to their permits to come into compliance. The problem that we, the small family farms, are confronted with is that they took 50% plus of our revenue away and have not given us, the small family farms, an option for us to come into compliance or a way to replace our lost income (50%). This means the small family farmers are land rich, but do not have the cash flow to continue doing business unless we are allowed to do tastings and sales on our property. Many small family farms are reviewing their alternatives and deciding one of the best options is to sell their properties. The BOS have recently stated, “…in 5 years it will become corporate Napa Valley”.
A small group of family farms have decided to fight this “takeover” and we formed an organization called “Save the Family Farms” with our objective being to convince the BOS to make a policy change to allow all family farms to become compliant and do tastings and sales on our properties without spending millions of dollars and hurting our environment. Please go to www.savethefamilyfarms.com and read our story, sign up to support us and thank you in advance if you can contribute!
Author: Bill Wolf, Founder of Save the Family Farms. Bill is also Grape Grower and 30-year resident of Napa. Proud owner, Eagle Eye Winery; a certified Sustainable winery, Fish Friendly Farming certified and Napa Green Certified.
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