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After push for micro-winery law, the permitting process begins for small-scale Napa County grape growers

Napa County recently passed a law allowing micro-wineries, paving the way for family farms and small-scale growers to build their brands and sell their wine without making overwhelming infrastructure investments. But behind the years of discussion and legislative jargon making up the ordinance, though, are also the farmers and their families tending to the relevant properties.

To them, this ordinance is more than just a set of rules and regulations for them to operate under: It is also a chance to hold off on buyouts and keep their family farm actually in the family.

“We are most excited for the opportunity to have direct-to-consumer sales, and to be able to bring people out to our vineyard and our home to share that with them and be able to pour wine,” said Hannah Rahn, who grew up on her family’s Howell Mountain estate alongside her brother, Dylan. “It really is a game-changer for our family.”

“As small producers of wine, distributors don’t really work for us, so being able to have the public here and sell directly to them is the only way that we can really make a wine program for our small label viable,” she said.

As per the ordinance, producers like the Rahn Estate have a series of criteria they must fit — they must produce between 201 and 5,000 gallons of wine a year, cap their physical space at 5,000 square-feet and limit visits to ten round trips a day — and go through a permitting process, which requires a slew of impact studies, code inspections and the like.

Regardless of the rules, the Rahns are excited they can start making some type of headway.

“I honestly thought the opportunity for us to do this was gone,” said Hannah’s father, Bryan Rahn. “The families that do this, once it is in your blood it never leaves you. So for those of us that are left, it gives us a chance — not a guarantee — that we can continue.”

In addition to the revenue generated from hosting visitors on-site, the Rahns also said that if all goes well in these future tasting rooms, building a more expansive wine club and consumer base could lead to greater autonomy for them and other small-scale vintners.

“Growers really rely on the sale of your grapes to make a profit, and some years it is more challenging than others and you kind of are at the mercy of the people who are going to be purchasing your fruit,” said Hannah Rahn. “This kind of helps take that pressure off. If it is going to be a harder year to sell, we can put it into the wine program, and we can profit off that because we will have an avenue to sell it.”

in the greater scheme of things, this ordinance doesn’t really change much other than decreasing the administrative burden. In simple terms, no new parcels are being created, and everyone now eligible under the micro-winery law was already previously eligible to apply for a larger-scale winery permit.

According to Elise Nerlove of Elkhorn Peak Cellars, “The only difference between the micro-winery application and the traditional winery application is that micro-wineries will go through the zoning administrator for approval, as opposed to the planning commission.”

Alongside her duties as second-generation winemaker, Nerlove has been spearheading the Save the Family Farms movement, lobbying for micro-winery legislation at the county-level and initiating a whole lot of conversations with government officials over the last four years. As a lifelong Napan, she understands why folks clench up when they hear that a new winery law is being proposed, and thus has been trying to share that the STFF mission is not to commercialize the valley, but to empower existing, small-scale wineries that don’t want to launch massive operations.

Some community members are still hesitant about the idea of micro-wineries, though, with citizens and government officials expressing concerns over corporate takeovers, traffic issues and water-use violations. But over the course of the proposal’s life, it has morphed into its current form, which includes the conditions that micro-wineries have to grow at least 75% of their fruit on-site and ferment at least 201 gallons at their own location each year in hopes of avoiding brands that rely heavily on custom-crush facilities.

As a result, on March 10 the Napa Valley Vintners issued a letter to Napa County’s planning, building and environmental services director David Morrison, and essentially stated that given these clarifications, the trade group publicly supports the proposal.

“We have had robust discussions on this issue within a dedicated working group, with our community and industry issues committee and within the NVV board of directors,” board chair Jack Bittner wrote in the letter. “It is our hope that the micro-winery use permit pathway will provide real benefits and lessen the administrative burden on small family farms … We also hope that anyone who might seek to abuse the provisions of this ordinance will refrain from doing anything that could jeopardize broad industry, community and political support for this program in the future.”

Similarly, Nerlove, the Rahns and others in a similar situation hope that local growers will benevolently use the ordinance to their advantage, and are optimistic about the future outcome. There is a whole lot of time and energy that will be required to pull off this micro-winery scheme.

Nerlove says they have the same building code standards, septic requirements and the like as any other winery — so despite the perception that micro-wineries can just skip to the front of the line — she said the opposite is true.

She added the ordinance still only applies to properties 10 acres or larger, noting this minimum parcel rule has been in place since 1990. 

“A lot of people also misunderstand that the process is still quite lengthy,” she said. “You have to have the water — which likely means you have to put in a new septic system — and you have to have the roads, and those are both significant investments.”

So while the repercussions of this ordinance won’t likely be felt for years, the gears are starting to shift for the valley’s small-scale producers.

“I am ready for the work,” said Nerlove. “I know it is going to be difficult, I know it is going to be costly, but I am just one generation in hopefully a long lineage of farmers and grape growers in Napa County.”

And for the Rahn family, they don’t see there being another choice.

“If we sold this place, I would never be able to drive by this piece of land and not get emotional about it. Dylan and I grew up here,” said Hannah Rahn. “We did not purchase this vineyard — we purchased the property and developed this vineyard as kids … There is just such an emotional tie, and I don’t think anyone else can treat it as right as we are.”

You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and sjones@napanews.com.

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