The Napa Valley Register covered this issue last week and editorialized about it on Sunday. It's right for the Register to suspect Beckstoffer of advancing his own interests by opposing a production expansion by his neighbor, Jean-Charles Boisset, who bought Raymond in 2009.
But the Register needs to step back and take a clear stand. I'm not sure what exactly its editorial advocates, but I know what I think.
Some Napa wineries are trying to skirt the law, the planning commission is misinterpreting the law rather than enforcing it, and it should stop.
Here are the details.
Napa Valley wine should be made from Napa Valley grapes. That's basic.
The question before the Napa County Planning Commission is, how much non-Napa wine should it allow to be made in Napa Valley?
In the great wine regions of Europe, the answer would be "none." But in most of the USA, the answer is "a limitless ocean."
But this is Napa County we're talking about, and the laws are different there.
|Andy Beckstoffer. Photo by Marissa Carlisle|
In 1990 the county followed that up with a Winery Definition Ordinance, which was designed to prevent wineries from becoming any more Disneyland-like -- or going the other direction, more industrial -- than they already were.
A key provision of the WDO was that wineries that wanted to expand their production facilities had to prove they had access to enough Napa Valley grapes to do so. The county as a whole didn't want giant wine factories like you can see in Modesto.
Like the agricultural preserve, this was prescient. At a time when nobody could predict the prices that Napa Valley Cabernets sell for today, the county recognized that it was better overall to produce fewer wines with an artisanal image.
However, there were already several wine factories cranking out the juice in Napa Valley. White Zinfandel was invented at Sutter Home, which looks like an oil refinery in back. But it was a key part of Napa business, and nobody wanted to (or likely legally could) tell a successful business to stop what it was doing.
So the county grandfathered in wineries at their 1990 production levels. They could make as much wine forever as they did then, whether they used Napa grapes or not. Moreover, they could make as much wine as they could produce from their existing facilities, whether they used Napa grapes or not.
"The idea was to stabilize the industry," says Beckstoffer, one of Napa's largest landowners, who was in on the negotiations in 1990.
But Beckstoffer says one of the guiding principles of the ordinance was that all wineries, even grandfathered ones, that want to expand into new territory would be treated the same. And that's where the 75% rule was invented.
According to federal law, a wine labeled "Napa County" must have 75% grapes from Napa County. Napa Valley has a higher standard of 85%, but this was a county ordinance, so it used the lower standard.
The idea was that if a winery wanted to build a production or storage facility to make 1000 tons more wine, it had to prove it had vineyards or vineyard contracts for 750 tons of Napa County wine.
But the planning commission, on its own, has allowed wineries to apply the 75% to their entire production, whether they did before or not. It's complicated; bear with me.
In other words, if Winery R made 1000 tons of Napa County wine in 1989 in its facility, all from Napa County grapes, and now it wants to expand its building to make 1500 tons of wine, Beckstoffer thinks it should have to show it has grape contracts for 375 tons -- 75% -- of the new wine. But the county planning commission is interpreting the law to say Winery R only needs to use Napa grapes on 75% of the total, so it need only show new grape contracts for 125 tons.
Beckstoffer is a major Napa Valley vineyard owner, but he says he will not necessarily benefit from tighter restriction on non-Napa grapes. He owns 1000 acres of vineyard land in Lake and Mendocino Counties, and those Lake Country grapes are worth more if he can sell them for Napa Valley wines. I don't know if I believe he won't benefit at all, but I have seen his Lake County vineyard, and 1000 acres, that's big.
But I don't care if he benefits. Somebody always does; that doesn't mean they're wrong. I am advocating primarily for consumers here, and secondarily, for the principles that the county enacted.
Consumers expect that wines made in Napa County, that say Made in Napa County on the label, have a Napa connection. Unfortunately many of them don't. Wine factories in the city limits of Napa and American Canyon are not subject to the county WDO, and they crank out truckloads of wine with a California appellation that at least some consumers probably mistake for having a Napa connection.
"Sutter Home says 'historic Napa Valley winery,' and they sell Muscat from Chile," Beckstoffer says. "If it was Freddy Franzia, the Napa Valley Vintners would be raising hell about it. But it's the Trincheros and Beringer and people like that so they're fine with it."
Beckstoffer's right. Napa passed this law specifically to curtail the mass production of non-Napa wines in the county. If Napa as a county wants to rescind the law for business reasons or whatever, that's one thing. But the planning commission by itself should not overturn the intent of the law.
Boisset has brought a lot of energy and intelligence to northern California. His renovation of Raymond is good for Napa Valley. But he bought it in 2009, and he wants to double its production. This seems to be precisely the sort of expansion by outside interests that the laws were passed to prevent.
Enforce the 75% rule on all new winery construction. That's the right move.