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Killing the Goose

Columnist: Mike Martini
January, 2015 Issue
Columnist

Mike Martini
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There are a host of ads advertising vineyard views. Nowhere does it say frost alarms may go off in the middle of the night.

 
Recent news reminds me of the goose that laid the golden eggs, although it’s a slightly different goose. In the original tale, the goose was killed because it was believed there was even more gold inside. In mine, we kill the goose because it squawks too much, attracts too many goose lovers to the neighborhood and, while the geese are pretty to look at, the egg-laying process is disturbing.
 
Winery events have become a hot button issue for Sonoma County supervisors. Neighbors are protesting congested local roads and loss of rural character. Use permit applications for a new winery face opposition that significantly lengthens the process and adds numerous conditions for approval. Countywide regulation of events is being considered even for existing wineries that have had use permits in place for years.
 
The threat of the Board of Supervisors to prohibit a widely recognized Dry Creek Valley winery from holding events for lack of compliance made the New York Times. A bewildered friend there asked what we were thinking to shut down this thriving business.
 
Sonoma County’s wineries and vineyards are recognized worldwide as a premium winemaking region generating more than $14 billion for the local economy. Adding in tourism, it’s an even larger number. In addition to the money generated for the local economy, there are the millions that flow into nonprofits via hundreds of fund-raising activities. It’s impossible to live here and not know someone who makes a living associated with grape growing and winemaking. Even though it’s made up of mostly small, family-run businesses, it all adds up to a very big industry.
 
Vineyards are very valuable, productive investments. They aren’t landscaping. Wineries are capital-intensive processing operations. They aren’t hobbies.
 
Part of the problem lies in the lack of understanding of what agriculture is and does. When people left the farms to work urban jobs, they left behind that understanding and replaced it with a Currier and Ives perception of the country. They see it as a static, attractive photograph and not as a bustling activity.
 
We’ve created a concept of a rural residential area so they can feel a part of it. But this doesn’t occur in any other agricultural areas. People don’t choose to live near the rice fields, walnut orchards or cotton fields of the Central Valley any more than they’d move next to the corn or soy bean farms of the Midwest.
 
The newspaper describing the opposition to wineries also includes a real estate ad describing a nine-acre vineyard, an 1880s craftsman farmhouse and a permit for a 5,000-case winery available at only $7.7 million. It goes on to say it “hosts one of California’s most romantic wedding sites.” Nowhere in the ad does it suggest that all your neighbors will hate you and try to stop you.
 
There are a host of ads advertising vineyard views. Nowhere does it say frost alarms may go off in the middle of the night. Nowhere does it say the vineyards may be sprayed for pests or fertilizer. Nowhere does it say really bright lights will be turned on in the middle of the night so large machines can harvest the grapes or so hundreds of pickers can see the clusters to cut. Nowhere does it say there will be semitrucks driving back and forth to deliver the fruit to a winery.
 
Upon closure of the sale, there’s a 12-page disclosure that this is an agricultural area. The county’s General Plan contains policies asserting a right to farm. How quickly it’s forgotten.
 
Wineries in Sonoma County are making great wine from grapes grown here. Craft brewers are the new kids on the block, along with cider makers. They, too, have garnered a reputation for quality products. Most are quite small and compete with each other less on quality (a given) and more on experience and story. Getting face time with the consumer is critical.
 
The good news is that the consumer sees the value of the small producer. They come to taste, hear the stories and purchase the product. They stay in our hotels and dine in our restaurants.
 
If you want to live in Wine Country, then understand the process and support the goose.

 

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