Wine producers and enthusiasts in Southern California are rejoicing as San Diego County has finally eased restrictions on the establishment of tasting rooms for smaller “boutique” wineries. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a tiered winery zoning ordinance a few months back. Local wineries that bottle less than 12,000 gallons per year will now be able to operate tasting rooms that can also offer retail sales. Also, wineries that bottle 120,000 gallons annually or less can now more easily register under a new “small winery” classification which allows pre-approved events to be held on the winery premise, such as weddings or other types of parties. The new regulations will allow vintners to finally tap into the potential of San Diego as a winegrowing region and hopefully challenge the many other highly reputed viticultural areas of California.
Friar Junipero Serra, nicknamed the “Father of California Wine”, founded the first California vineyard in Mission San Diego in 1769. The varietal used, dubbed the “Mission” grape, was the premier California wine grape in use until about 1880. Despite its early rich history, the region never recovered from the effects of the Prohibition era, and the onerous regulations that followed. This new county ordinance may be the first sign of a renaissance period for the San Diego wine industry, which one day will hopefully match the prowess of the local microbrew industry.
In 2008, a similar plan was to take effect, but efforts to allow tasting rooms were stunted by worried neighbors of small wineries that feared high maintenance costs, increased traffic, and potential liability for intoxicated tasters driving irresponsibly on the privately shared roads used to access the wineries. Further, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) violations were alleged, which put a major damper on the new plans. A major use permit was required to open a tasting room, and this process was cost prohibitive and overly time consuming for most local boutique wineries. Now these wineries will be exempted from these restrictions, and a provision in the ordinance calls for those operating tasting rooms to work out easement issues with the other owners of these private roads.
While many see the rule change as a boon to an emerging industry and a victory for wine lovers, some have not been as welcome to the change. The San Diego Citizenry Group (SDCG), the same group of landowners that halted adoption of ordinance in 2008, recently filed suit alleging the county did not sufficiently assess the environmental impact of the new zoning ordinance, touting the same traffic and liability concerns as before. This time around though, the county defends its position with an extensive 500 page environmental impact report costing around a quarter million dollars, upon which the creation and implementation of new ordinance was built.
“In my opinion, this lawsuit is completely misguided,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob who represents the community of Ramona on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. “Vintners worked very hard with the County to develop an ordinance that worked for all parties. In the end, we found a way to spur the economy by taking measures to enhance an agricultural use, in agricultural zoned areas, while doing our best to preserve the community character of these rural areas.”
“The County prepared a very thorough Environmental Impact Report for this project and I have every expectation that the Court will agree with the County’s position. This is an unfortunate attempt to create an obstacle that would hurt many others and sputter an emerging industry seeking to further promote the County as a successful wine producing region,” Supervisor Jacob said.
The new county ordinance displays a conscious attempt to expand the local wine industry by streamlining regulations and making them simpler to understand. San Diego County is now home to three federally recognized American Viticultural Areas, known as South Coast, Ramona Valley, and San Pasqual Valley, and is the closest U.S. city to the expanding wine region of Guadalupe Valley in Baja California. San Diego County has a burgeoning “urban” winery industry, with wineries such as Carlsbad’s Witch Creek Winery crafting premium quality wines just steps from the beach, while using grapes from San Diego and the growingly popular Guadalupe Valley of Baja California. San Pasqual Winery uses grapes from the similar locations, and is the region’s oldest urban vintner. Solana Beach also just welcomed its first urban winery, Carruth Cellars. The growth of this urban niche in the wine market has sparked curiosity and interest, enough so that many wine industry leaders converged yesterday upon San Diego for a seminar dedicated to analyzing the ins and outs of this new urban winery business model.
It is estimated that nearly half a dozen new tasting rooms will open by the end of this year in San Diego County due to the newly amended rules. In addition to spurring growth in the wine industry, the ordinance is aimed at increasing an already booming tourist business, and is expected to boost the number of wine bars, restaurants, cafes, and hotels to accommodate those seeking to explore the new wine trails. If San Diego can successfully expand its wine industry, wine trails could become the next major attraction in an entertainment filled metropolis that already offers some of the best zoos, parks, beaches, sporting, and nightlife that the country has to offer.
From a broader outlook, the new San Diego County ordinance strengthens a California wine industry which already makes up over 90% of the total U.S. wine business. As more established wine regions become increasingly popular and congested, winemakers are seeking to explore new frontiers, one of which will be San Diego County. The future of the wine industry in this emerging region is indeed bright.
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