06.27.2017  
 

Santa Barbara OKs Contested Tasting Room

Pressured by neighbors, planning commission allows only visits by appointment

 
by Jaime Lewis
 
wine larner vineyard winery
 
Larner Vineyards has sold grapes to Central Coast wineries for years, but when the small producer sought to open a tasting room, the Santa Barbara Planning Commission began throwing up obstacles.

Solvang, Calif.—Seven years after first submitting plans to develop an estate winery tasting room on his family’s 130 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley, Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards finally received approval from the Santa Barbara Planning Commission last month, with the caveat that tastings be by-appointment-only, and that the winery shuttle visitors from off-site for events.

The Planning Commission made these stipulations to mitigate traffic and support bike safety as well as to satisfy the group of neighbors that most vocally opposed Larner’s development, the Friends of Ballard Canyon. Larner is a founder of the Ballard Canyon AVA and has supplied some of the Central Coast’s most lauded winemakers with wine grapes for years.

“While we are grateful that our permitting efforts that began in 2010 have finally been approved without further appeal, we had to give up many concessions to advance and spend over $350,000 in permitting/legal fees over seven years, all for a project that from the onset was fully in compliance of the County’s Winery Ordinance (existing or proposed),” Larner said via email, adding that his case will no doubt affect the future of estate producers looking to open tasting rooms in Santa Barbara County.

“What became evident as we progressed is that we would never shed the ‘poster-child’ label and unfortunately taint the future of our local industry as our project has set two precedents,” he said, citing the off-site shuttling and by-appointment-only mandates. “All local vintners should be concerned, as there is no doubt that even a handful of opponents will be empowered to force them out of their business plans, as is evidenced in our case.”

This isn’t the first time a small group of residents has changed the fate of wine industry businesses in Santa Barbara County. Tantara Winery general manager Ernie Vandegrift recalls attempting to open a tasting room at Los Alamos’ Skyview Motel, on the east side of Highway 101, just outside the general commercial zone appropriated in the Los Alamos General Plan. After two years of appeals to amend the General Plan and rezone the property, a small group of residents that comprised the Los Alamos Planning Advisory Committee (LAPAC) recommended against it, citing concerns of water usage, sewer treatment capacity, community plan integrity, more intense uses allowed under general commercial zoning, and “the proliferation of wine tasting rooms in Los Alamos.” The County Planning Commission denied Vandegrift’s amendment request in 2015 in response to pressure from LAPAC, despite the collection of more than 200 signatures from residents of Los Alamos (pop. 1,890) to support the Skyview project.

LAPAC “was of the opinion that all alcohol consumption should be done in the downtown model that they’d worked so hard to create,” said Vandegrift. “They didn’t want to make an exception.”

Today, Tantara holds by-appointment-only tastings in an industrial production facility at the corner of Westgate Road and Jason Way in Santa Maria, as stipulated in their conditional use permit. “We petitioned the City of Santa Maria to allow us to do tastings here, and they acquiesced,” said Vandegrift. “Without question, it’s easier to get (a tasting room) within a municipality. And the farther you go north in Santa Barbara County, the more embracing they are to agriculture and the business that’s necessary to promote it.”

As for the impact of a by-appointment-only mandate on sales, Vandegrift said he receives about a dozen calls per week to request an appointment, of which only half materialize into actual tastings. The upside of by-appointment-only tastings, he said, is that more than half end with enrollment in the wine club.

“That’s one of the largest benefits of a tasting room: It’s the most direct and effective way to build your wine club,” Vandegrift said. “In a way, we see holding by-appointment-only tastings like subsidizing building our wine club list.”

Of the 200 wine producers in Santa Barbara County, only about 6% offer tastings by appointment only; and of those, only Demetria Estate in Los Olivos is, like Larner Vineyard, an estate producer. But in the case of Demetria, appointment-only was the preferred model, rather than a mandated one, when the tasting room opened in 2007.

“We use it to manage our crowds so that we don’t have buses driving in with groups of 40,” Demetria general manager Alexis Zahoudanis said, adding that the winery’s two phones ring constantly throughout the day. “I don’t feel that it hinders our sales. It’s not like we’re being exclusive: We take everyone, but we charge a premium for our tastings: $25 per person, and most people walk away with bottles or multiple cases.”

Santa Barbara County Vintners Association executive director Morgen McLaughlin agrees that appointment-only tasting rooms separate serious consumers from casual ones.

“They’re more apt to buy,” she said. “But it’s also about the balance of fewer people, so each visit becomes really important in terms of execution and value. We’re not like Napa County, where the appointment-only model is established. It’s still very much in its infancy here, so it’s going to be hard for someone like Larner, because he’s going to be one of the few. Visitors to Santa Barbara County expect that tasting rooms are just going to be open. It’s a matter of education and evolution, but there can be a lot of positives for that model.”

 

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