Near Eugene, Ore., Sweet Cheeks Winery applied for a special events license in order to host weddings and fundraisers.
Eugene, Ore. --
Oregon wineries and the municipal bureaucrats responsible for developing policies that interpret state regulations protecting agricultural land are struggling to define when events at wineries stop being about the wine.
"When you go to a winery, they're probably going to sell bottle openers and hats and shirts that have their logos on them," said Matt Laird, manager of the Land Management Division in Lane County, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. "But when is it something else? What we've run into in Lane County is that some of the events are separately ticketed."
State law allows wineries to sell "items directly related to wine, the sales of which are incidental to retail sale of wine on-site," but it doesn't define what those items are, or what services are deemed incidental to the sale of wine.
With no guidelines governing what kinds of events wineries are permitted to host, Lane County's 14 wineries received notice in October 2008 that they might require a special event permit to host events outside their wineries' usual business.
In Lane County, Ore., Matt Laird is working to define which activities are appropriate for rural wineries.
Laird said criteria for determining whether or not an event is part of normal winery business include whether or not the event falls within standard winery operating hours, the scale of the event and how it's marketed.
"The problem is, what is an event is not defined. So there is some area there where we have to try to figure out, 'Is this just the small-scale stuff that we would normally think goes fine with a winery?'" Laird said.
A three-piece string orchestra that accompanies a wine tasting at a winery will be different from a concert where wine happens to be sold, Laird told Wines & Vines
. "There's some sort of line or continuum there, it's sort of difficult to get your hands on," he said. "I'm not sure even if the wine industry itself is completely in agreement or has reached consensus on what should or shouldn't be allowed out there."
A similar approach applies to weddings on agricultural land. It's OK to have a wedding or two on farmland, Laird said, but if you're regularly booking weddings for your farm, that's something else. "Now you're at another level of commercial activity that does require some review to see how those activities impact the surrounding agricultural operations."
Since permitting requirements interpret state regulations governing acceptable uses of agricultural land, there is some variation across the state in the granting of permits. Laird said planning departments elsewhere have run into similar challenges with respect to permitting.
Since the regulations are set by the state, legislators in Salem would have to look at what other jurisdictions do to ensure the state's wine industry has the same freedom as those in other jurisdictions.
Stephany Boettner, spokesperson for the Oregon Wine Board
, said requirements for special permits vary across Oregon, but she declined to comment on what efforts, if any, the Oregon Wine Board is making on behalf of the state's wineries to advocate for more consistent treatment.
In the meantime, one winery has obtained a special events permit, while another has submitted an application and a third is considering doing so.
Lorrie Normann, general manager of Sweet Cheeks Winery
near Eugene, said applying for a permit from the county made more sense than trying to change state law. The county has been co-operative in assisting Sweet Cheeks with its application, she said.
The special events permit requires a one-time fee of $2,600 and involves less time and trouble than seeking legislative change at the state level. It made sense to Normann, and will permit Sweet Cheeks to host weddings and fundraisers that often use music as well as wine to attract guests. "Once you've got this, you're good," she said.
British Columbia, which protects the agricultural land on which most wineries operate through the 36-year-old Agricultural Land Reserve, hasn't experienced the same challenges from the wine industry's growth.
B.C.'s Agricultural Land Commission permits licensed wineries to engage in several "ancillary uses" on protected farmland, including processing, storage and retail sales; tours; and a restaurant with no more than 1,345 square feet inside and 1,345 square feet outside.
Picnicking requires a special endorsement, while provincial liquor control laws govern activities within the food service area. Special rules also govern agri-tourism activities (a 2003 policy note provides full details).
Wineries such as Quails' Gate
in West Kelowna are generally happy with the regulations. "When it comes to events, the only restrictions we have are the normal licensing and special occasion rules and maybe some unique site restrictions," Quails' Gate general manager Tyler Galts said. "We are rather fortunate that in B.C. our only real restriction is the creativity of event organizers."
Vintner Paul Beveridge, president of Family Winemakers of Washington, said most wineries are reasonably content with his state's event regulations.
Wineries in Washington state also face few restrictions. Paul Beveridge, president of the Family Winemakers of Washington State
, said industry has worked hard in recent years to lift restrictions that have hampered the growth of the industry. Recent years have seen wineries able to open restaurants while off-site tasting rooms now e njoy the same operating privileges as the wineries they represent, including the ability to host winemakers' dinners.
"Some people would say that in Washington you can just about do anything at the winery premises," Beveridge said. "Most of the wineries, I think, are happy with what they've got."
The balance is fragile, however; a restrictive ruling on a matter wineries consider common sense by the Washington State Liquor Control Board would likely spark discontent. One illustration is the restriction on the involvement of wineries in fundraisers on behalf of charities.
"The state is making it a real pain to put on these charity wine-tasting events and wine auctions. To the point where a lot of nonprofits just won't deal with it," Beveridge said. The charity must coordinate the event rather than a for-profit organization, for example, and there's an increasing demand for liability insurance. (The popular Washington Wine Ambassador program came to an end earlier this year
, partly over the question of liability issues.)
"If they don't back off, we're going to have to fix that because it's getting too difficult to market our product," Beveridge said. "They do have a public safety issue but the restrictions are kind of overboard on it right now."