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San Diego Wine Tasting Law Challenged

Ordinance would allow rural wineries to sell direct at tasting rooms

by Jane Firstenfeld
Ramona Valley American Viticultural Area
Approximately 35 miles northeast of San Diego, the Ramona Valley American Viticultural Area was approved in January 2006. The 89,000 acre area covers 139 square miles of primarily rural area surrounding the unincorporated town of Ramona. Map courtesy Ramona Valley Vineyard Association.
San Diego, Calif. -- When the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance permitting winegrowers in unincorporated, agriculture-zoned areas to open tasting rooms, members of the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association  thought they’d finally triumphed in a years’ long battle to put their AVA on the consumer map. The ordinance, originally proposed in 2007, won approval Aug. 4, and became effective Sept. 4.

Whether the growers and winemakers will ever enjoy the fruit of their struggle remains to be seen, however. On Sept. 3, an ad hoc group of property owners calling itself “the San Diego Citizenry Group,” filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance. The suit contends that the ordinance was passed without a proper environmental study, and asks that the supervisors’ vote be annulled.

Carolyn Harris, owner of 200-case Chuparosa Vineyards in Ramona, told Wines & Vines that after the proposal failed to pass in 2007, the county hired a consultant and invested some $250,000 to produce a 500-page environmental impact report, which influenced the successful result this year.

She predicted that the pending lawsuit (no court date has been established) will have a chilling effect on wine industry development, since vintners would be reluctant to invest in tasting rooms that might eventually require expensive and time-consuming “major use permits” to continue operating, as required under previous regulations.

She pointed out that, in her area, only one tasting room had been approved in the past decade. “The use permit system became a bloody nightmare,” Harris said. With 16 small wineries according to WinesVinesData, the inland Ramona Valley has the densest concentration of small wineries in San Diego County.

But despite varied terroir, ample agricultural land, a grape-friendly climate, a highly educated local populace and access to a well-developed tourism industry, its lack of tasting rooms means Ramona has not been able establish a wine trail or tap into the lucrative direct-to-consumer industry.

Harris has 4 acres planted to vines; the average farm in San Diego County, she said, is just 5 acres. In the Ramona Valley, she said, “A very modest amount of wine is produced,” and without tasting rooms, she and her fellow vintners sell mostly to local wine shops and restaurants, giving up “Half of the gross price.”

The new ordinance, Harris explained, gives estate wineries the right-by-zoning to sell their produce at the point of origin, just as other farmers do at fruit stands. Without this right, she said, “Our wine industry is not going to launch.”

Harris characterized the San Diego Citizenry Group as well-heeled people who’d purchased land in what they thought would be a rural residential enclave. “They put up a fancy gate,” and dug into deep pockets to fund an attack on agricultural use. “This area is zoned agricultural,” she said. “It’s not agriculture unless you can sell your products. One winery does not a wine trail make.”

One of the main issues brought up in the lawsuit, she said, is that many roads in the area are not maintained by the county. “When maintenance is needed, we pass the hat, throw in a $1,000-bill, and bring in the trucks to lay down some gravel.” The plaintiffs also cited potentially “unmitigated” noise issues during and after construction. “They are looking to be offended by winery visitors,” Harris said. “It’s a horrible abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act being used to block and stop projects by picking the low hanging fruit.” An attorney for the Citizenry Group did not respond to our request for comment prior to deadline.

According to Harris, the vast majority of San Diego county residents are behind the wineries and enactment of the new ordinance. “They are looking forward to it; looking forward to maintaining property in agriculture.” While other of the county’s high-value agricultural crops, especially avocados, citrus and ornamental plants, have in recent years been adversely impacted by cycles of drought, freeze and wildfires, she pointed out, these same events left vineyards unscathed.

Their growth potential hanging in the balance, and harvest a little late this year, “In the meantime,” Harris said, “We’re trying to get a really good crop this year.”

Carruth Cellars
In coastal San Diego County, Carruth Cellars Winery opened Sept. 10 in Solana Beach as an urban winery with tasting room.
One step forward
At least one new winery in San Diego County will enjoy the benefits of a tasting room. Carruth Cellars on Cedros opens today in the Cedros Design District of coastal Solano Beach. One of a handful of urban wineries in the county, Carruth produces some 2,000 cases per year from grapes sourced in Napa Valley and Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Owner Adam Carruth had worked for wineries in Sonoma, Temecula and nearby Carlsbad prior to establishing his eponymous operation.
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