Friday, August 14, 2015

What? Locals Overwhelmingly LIKE the Wine Industry

      Doesn't Everyone Hate The Wine Business?

While Napa is the current poster child for the debate, whether Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Oregon, Virginia, Paso Robles, or the San Joaquin Valley - the wine business has received it's share of public scrutiny the past few years in local press. While "wine country" is viewed by many as an idyllic place to live or retire .... certainly so if you read listings from local real estate agents, that view isn't shared by a non-homogenous mix of anti-winery folks in what is now being labeled in an on-going story of the greedy and detached winery owners and growers versus their communities.

I wrote about this issue about a year ago [link] and the debate has continued to develop since. Recent headlines include:

According to the articles and comments from readers in newspapers who cover the business, the debate is about a threat that is changing the character of [fill in your town or AVA here]. Those accusations are back-stopped with references to the negative impacts from traffic, noise, tourism and heavier water use.

Here is the reality: With only limited exception - there is no research available that supports the claims and the cited adverse impacts as purported. But it really doesn't matter because if something is said long enough without being challenged, then the perception becomes true. Today the industry isn't doing enough to survey, research and then counter the anti-wine accusations with facts.

      Thou Shalt Not Complain About A Fellow Grower or Winery in Public

Comments from readers in some of these stories are scathing, some are irrational gibberish, but there are very few comments defending the business or offering a supported counter view. "The wineries are ruining our [fill in the blank: open space, quality of life, agricultural heritage, view, agricultural diversity, rural character]." Motivation for these views are varied but include good old-fashioned NIMBYism, run of the mill anti-change agendas, and sadly in some cases, vintner grape-grower infighting.

The later, from my perspective is about as smart as a pro-sports league going on strike, reaching out to fans for sympathy, and then expecting they will side with billionaires. That action paints the business in a very unappealing light.

Growers and wineries can argue over contract terms, farming practices, and disagree over fair compensation, but taking this evolving debate into the public and siding with an anti-wine coalition or providing fuel to the argument is asinine. [... there. I said it.]

      Everyone Loves the Wine Business

I've wondered about the degree to which the public's feelings are being represented by these vocal antagonists. They have certainly gotten their share of ink.

Then this past Friday, Bill Swindell wrote this piece in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat titled "Sonoma State survey finds wide support for North Coast wine industry." We have our answer: It turns out, there is wide local support for the wine industry! To paraphrase Sally Fields: You like us! You really like us!!


According to the report from the Wine Business Institute School of Business and Economics of Sonoma State University (I think that's the "WBISoBAEoSSU") .... anyway, Sonoma State's survey concluded 88% of locals felt the Wine Business had a positive impact on the quality of life in their county.

Wait! I thought John Q Public had the opposite view? Apparently not, and there's more:
  • 94% said the wine industry contributes positively to the beauty and culture of wine regions.
  • 78% feel the wine industry gives back to their communities
  • 83% felt the wine industry created a positive image for their community while only 2% felt the opposite.
Here is the stake in the heart for the anti-winery group who believe they represent their communities feelings on this issue.

From this one chart we now can conclude the overwhelming majority of North Coast locals believe wineries contribute positively to preserving the rural character and agricultural heritage of their regions.

      Strike Up The Band!

Before anyone starts a parade, there are two thoughts that need to be brought out:

First, the anti-winery group - while at times inflammatory, still have many points in their plank that should be considered. Second, the wine business is in part to blame for the negative directional image change that has been gaining momentum these past several years.

      Anti-Winery Side Has Good Points

I am old enough to remember Silicon Valley when IBM and Fairchild Semiconductor cohabitated side by side with fruit trees in what was pretty good farm land, before it was paved over.

I think there are a couple cherry orchards left in Cupertino but today the biggest fruit grown in Silicon Valley is the new Apple Campus under construction. In many counties that's not the desired outcome of residents.

Rural character and agriculture is something that is protected in places, but should food processors and wineries be viewed as agriculture? How do you handle a person who builds a home next to a garlic producer, then complains about the smell? Many say that wineries are no more a part of agriculture than garlic packing and tomato warehouses. How many wineries are enough? When does the next incremental winery make a community worse off? These are valid questions to ask and sorting them out benefits everyone.

The apocalyptic vision of wine communities is what is being debated. Taken to an endpoint, we all can lose what makes wine country worth visiting, and instead end up with unabated winery development, uncontrolled wine production, deforestation of the hillsides and open space to accommodate new vineyards, more hotels, more events, more expensive restaurants, fewer local serving businesses, traffic, noise pollution, cats and dogs having sex, and the list goes on.

Does anyone in the wine business really want their region to become institutionalized, leaving wine tourism routes resembling strip malls with the only difference a few rows of vines separating wineries instead of grass median strips?

The protagonists in our story - the evil wineries and vineyard owners, should all want to maintain the beauty that makes tourists want to come to visit and buy their products.

Both sides in the debate should largely want the same thing: A wine growing region that demonstrates architectural diversity and retains and enhances the natural beauty of an area, as well as considers and mitigates negative impacts from vineyard and winery operations. That's why we should all want to see county zoning and ordinances that limit vineyard and winery development, but refrain from handcuffing wineries who want to bring new architectural diversity to the mix.

On that last point, I would love to see independent studies done to quantify the claims of negative impacts on traffic, water, and noise in various communities due to the wine business. I don't doubt they exist, but before we start solving a problem, shouldn't that first be defined so when we write regulations, the regulations help solve the issue?

If we don't study the problems rationally and develop regulations on mere perceptions, the wine business will be negatively branded and we will have restrictions that don't solve the real issues.

      Promotion: The Three Chief Weapons

If you listen to the detractors, they are promoting their causes and branding the wine business as something resembling a cross between Disneyland, Love Canal, and Los Angeles during rush hour. Winery owners shouldn't be surprised to find people with opposing views showing up to planning commission meetings, ready to challenge every new change to a winery permit and turning the debate into a type of Spanish Inquisition that is then picked up in the local press.

The three chief weapon they use are fear, fear and surprise, fear surprise and ruthless efficiency ..... wait .... the single chief weapon they use is simple promotion.

They have banded together, put up websites explaining their perspective, protested and picketed, used letters to the editors to publish their view, shown up at planning commission meetings where papers are looking for controversy to write about. They have demanded change, and they have been getting it.

      The Cure for the Spanish Inquisition: Education.

Allowing someone else to shape the debate without contesting the accusations is a mistake. Where is the research that is done to substantiate allegations?

Appellation Associations typically view themselves as a marketing arm for the promotion and sale of wine produced. While some provide input into the County on issues when asked, I don't believe a single AVA Association takes it as their first responsibility to promote and market their constituency to the public at large within their county. And yet the current anti mono-culture anti-winery debate is perhaps the largest threat facing the small wine business today.

Rather than let others define the issues, the wine business needs to be better at branding themselves locally and educating communities on what is happening, as well as the positive ways the business impacts the community.

Traffic in Napa for instance is more due to job creation than tourism according to a study done by the County but that isn't widely believed. There are human stories out there about the positive ways the wine business gives back to their communities. While one can say vineyards are ruining a region's habitat, the donation by wineries to open space and permanent development easements is really unprecedented in business. And for wineries specifically, what are you doing to foster positive relations with immediate neighbors? Those folks can be your greatest ally the next time you want an increase in your use permit.

What Do You Think about this Topic?

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  1. California urban areas have become amorphous masses over the last 20-30 years outstripping all early diversionary resources. To what extent is this tourism simply an urban bleed of residents simply trying to get out for the day or two. I do not see enough tourism marketing pressure to drive masses as the NIMBY would suggest. What difference is stuck in wedding traffic in SF or in Sonoma or Napa, still stuck in traffic.. There is way more to this

  2. Anon 11:30. Thanks for the comments. I've read them a couple times but I'm not sure exactly what you mean.

    Taking a guess, I think you are suggesting tourism is local with people leaving congested areas for places such as Napa and Sonoma, and because of that - the taxing of infrastructure is less than it would be were we dealing with tourism in places such as London, Paris, and Hong-Kong. If so, I will agree with that with a side note:

    The reason want to come specifically to Napa is because when Silicon Valley was growing, the County elected restrictions on themselves that limited development to city boundaries, and allowed agriculture to develop outside the boundaries. (Ag Preserve)

    Many other ways have been developed in other areas to make sure cities are for people, and open space for nature and agriculture. Left unchecked, developers will always pave over flat accessible areas first, and change the rural and open space character of a region.

    For wine country to retain it's natural and man-impacted beauty, more effort is needed to ensure balance as the business demands evolve. In this case, tourism is a pressure as is employment.

    I've seen published a view that tourism isn't needed for wine business success. That's a true statement but only if you are willing to cede winery ownership to large corporates who move millions of cases through Safeway and big-box retailers. That would permanently devalue the ability of producers to maintain terrior driven wine. We would end up with homogeneous wines.

    In order to strike an appropriate balance between winery business needs, tourism, employment, taxation for local governments and maintain a high quality of life, there needs to be debate and on-going regulation.

    ...... I think thats what you said?

  3. The most difficult thing for me in all of this is watching all the NIMBYite nonsense pass uncontested. I think we need to do a better job of fighting the misinformation out there, while acknowledging that, due to our industry's intense influence on life in Sonoma and Napa, there should always be discussions about its direction and need for improvement. One thing we also need to keep in mind is that the 2% of people who think the wine industry projects a negative image of this area will never be convinced. They are the Ernie Carpenters who openly state in the PD that they don't care if we cut water use or chemical use and they don't care what the facts are. But we do need to point this out to the public and we can't just rely on our grower and appellation org's to do it.

    1. Thanks for the comments Gabe. Getting information is critical in my opinion to solving any of the raised concerns. Its not to diminish the concerns, but to quantify them so when regulations are constructed, they fix the issue.

      As example, Napa has increased traffic. It turns out because of research, its due more to job creation versus tourism, which is sensible as traffic is bad goinng north in the morning, and south in the evening as people come and go from affordable housing in the South County. If we are trying to fix traffic by eliminatiing events, we will do nothing by that regulation. Instead, we should be focused on limiting day-time events where we will get the most bang for our regulation.

      Thanks for the post!

  4. Many thanks for bringing this issue up. I think that one of the misconceptions that you encourage about the "anti-winery" groups now speaking out is that we are "anti-winery" groups. We are, in fact, "anti-urban-development" groups. To the extent that wineries contribute to development through a business model based on an ever expanding tourist population, and the ever expanding workforce and urban development necessary to maintain it (and urban ills that result from it), then we may be seen as "anti-winery" - but only by those that don't see a difference between the impacts of a winery and those of a tourist attraction. Which is of course what some in the wine industry, interested in increasing profits regardless of impacts, can't see.

    The wine industry that built the Napa brand, the one that was more interested in the quality of its wine than the quantity of its visitation, has created a rural environment that all of us NIMBY's cherish and want to protect. It is the reason we came here. We see the same analogy to the Silicon Valley that you see, and we are in this fight so that our children won't have the lament you express. A development-based growth economy is a threat to a rural environment. That's why grapegrowers, whom you chide as turncoats, are with the NIMBY's on this issue. Their living is based on a real agricultural economy, not the contorted conflation of agriculture and tourism promoted by growth minded governments and industries (who fund all market research).The grapegrowers fight is existential.

    There are many vintners in the Napa Valley that don't depend on tourism to survive. Some, like Dominus or Screaming Eagle, allow no visitation and survive quite well. We NIMBY's are quite "pro-winery" when it comes to vintners who know how fragile a rural environment is in an urban world and structure their business model around stable profits from a finite agricultural crop rather than ever increasing profits from tourism.

    Of course, as more and more wineries are created to feed wealthy egos or milk the tourist trade, those willing to forgo maximum profits to protect a rural environment, the price paid to create Napa's agricultural preserve in the first place, will disappear. If we don't speak out now, the vineyards will continue to fill with parking lots and "architectural diversity", more tourists will come, more urban development and infrastructure will be built to accommodate them, and the natural beauty of our rural environment will become, like your cherry orchards, just a lament.

    Bill Hocker

    1. Bill thanks again for weighing in.

      I'd take issue with the notion that your group is an "anti-urban-development-group." Saying it that way, you are suggesting you would be against development if the issue were candlestick makers too but its not really about wineries. Of course that's a false argument because wineries are what are impacting the valley and you aren't needed leeding that cheerleading squad because the WDO and Ag Preserve were created long before you moved to the county.

      It's OK. Say it. You are anti-winery because that is what is going into the urban areas and virtually all of your complaints and suggestions are about limiting winery growth.

      My comments here don't suggest that I'm opposed to slowing growth in wineries. My comments above are talking about both sides that need to come to a middle. I am against inflamatory comments that are designed to make regulatory change without study. I'm against regulation that hopes to fix a perceived problem, only to discover it does nothing and we continue to be stuck in a debate looking for more laws to solve a problem that wasn't fixed by the new regulations.'

      You and I ... and I believe the wine business as a whole, should want to protect the valley's character as I have said consistently. For instance, if you want to protect the rural character of the up-valley, maybe we should be incenting the building a "wine park" in the South County that would be a place where day-trippers will stop instead of driving up valley. It would be a place where winery back offices could work versus seeing them commute north every day. Those are the kind of ideas that might create change of the status quo..... subject to study and quantification.

      Thanks again for your thoughts! Keep up the debate but I hope you will support fact based solutions.

    2. You're right. I do support the suggestion made by Napa Co. Supervisor Luce that, given the large surplus of permitted production capacity in the county (enough for 2 to 5 times the napa grape crop depending on the facts you choose), a moratorium on new winery construction should be considered. Barring that approach, limiting tourism at new wineries is, I think, an effective way to curb the winery proliferation taking place. As one developer said at a recent APAC meeting, the small amount of allowed visitation proposed by Planning Director Morrison would mean only a 3.9% return on investment and they might as well buy treasuries instead. Sounds like a plan to me. The object is to slow the urbanization of agricultural land that any building project represents (including candlestick factories). If such a moratorium really did begin to cripple the wine industry it could always be lifted. Urban development, of course, can't be reversed.

      While my focus is on tourist winery proliferation because 1. there is one being proposed next door to me and 2. that is the focus of county planning right now, I support and document the efforts of all the community groups who are pushing back against the urban development of the county, most under the Napa Vision 2050 banner. Those include the water and environmental impacts of development, resorts in Calistoga, home subdivision in Angwin, estate subdivision at Walt Ranch, vineyard development of forest land, the mega developments like Napa Pipe and Watson Ranch, the ongoing tourism impacts and development in the municipalities, and the Syar mining needed to pave it all.

      You say that you want to protect the valley's character perhaps with more development in the south county. The south county road junctions are already jammed and the unbuilt projects already in the works are huge. New tourism-promoting development (or even industrial development) will not help. New development that doesn't generate more demand - (perhaps the wine park you suggest or a worker/tourist parking structure at the airport linked to a light rail system up the valley for example) might, but only if other development in the county is capped. We do need a one-Napa, big picture planning process, as recommended at the Mar. 10th joint BOS/PC meeting and as recently embraced by the vintners. It needs to focus on economic stability not on economic growth. Now that the Napa Pipe standoff is over perhaps that can proceed. We do both agree that we want to protect the valley's character - I just don't think that more urban development, drawing in more people to the county, is the way to go about it.

  5. Bill
    Thanks again for the perspective.

    WRT permitted capacity, that's a useless statistic because 1) We can only produce what is grown in the valley except 2) the industrial are at the airport where a lot of wine is produced. 3) grandfathered wineries don't have capacity limits.

    Trying to control growth by limiting production is a useless task. Factually, it will never impact production, tourism, traffic, negative water use .... just a bad direction to expect change by limiting production.

  6. Bill
    Thanks again for the perspective.

    WRT permitted capacity, that's a useless statistic because 1) We can only produce what is grown in the valley except 2) the industrial are at the airport where a lot of wine is produced. 3) grandfathered wineries don't have capacity limits.

    Trying to control growth by limiting production is a useless task. Factually, it will never impact production, tourism, traffic, negative water use .... just a bad direction to expect change by limiting production.