“Balance” was the word of the day as Santa Barbara County staff members led about 40 representatives of the wine, agriculture and hospitality industries and a few Santa Ynez Valley residents through a discussion of modifying the county’s winery ordinance.
The specific topic of the meeting Thursday morning at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton was food service at wineries — why it’s important, what level is appropriate and how it can be balanced with maintenance of agricultural activity on agriculturally zoned land.
Speakers noted that wine is meant to be paired with food; that making food available is required by liquor licenses; that serving at least some food helps keep wine-tasters sober, and lets them linger and be educated about wine rather than just showing up to gulp and go; and that keeping customers in tasting rooms longer is essential to “forming a bond” and building brand loyalty so that those customers will buy a bottle of the local wine later when they’re shopping at a store.
As the county prepares new rules, various speakers said, there is also a need for a balance between rules that are too vague and too specific; between serving nothing but packaged crackers and operating a full-service restaurant; between competing with restaurants in town and complementing them; and between serving the needs of agricultural and residential property uses.
After the meeting, Agricultural Planner Stephanie Stark said that wine-industry representatives have become the dominant presence at meetings to discuss the ordinance revisions, and that comments made in those sessions can vary widely from those made by other people via mail or email.
Some people may not have time to attend, or they prefer to compose their thoughts in writing before contributing them, Stark said. In addition, the strong industry presence at the meetings seems to be intimidating some people, she added.
“People are afraid to come out, so they’re providing their comments by email,” she said.
Thursday’s session was the second of five that began Nov. 27 and will conclude Feb. 21 as the county’s planning, public health and other staff members gather information that will be used to revise the winery ordinance, which regulates allowable land uses at wineries and sets standards and issues permits for their development. A public meeting in August, also at the Marriott, helped set the agenda for the series of more focused discussions.
As an increasing number of wineries sought permission to build tasting rooms and hold special events on their rural, agriculturally zoned property — and an increasing number of rural residents became concerned — the county Board of Supervisors told the Planning and Development Department in April 2011 to make studying and revising the winery ordinance its top priority in 2012.
When asked about the value of spending more than a year to revise the winery ordinance, Planning Department Director Glenn Russell gave an emphatic answer:
The current ordinance is “broken,” Russell said, and “where it’s really broken is where you see wineries going through the process” and dealing with “ambiguities” and “lack of definitions in the ordinance.”
Assistant Director Dianne Black echoed the sentiment.
“Unless we come up with a way to articulate the rules better, we’re going to continue to have controversy at the Planning Commission” every time a winery applies for a tasting room, Black said. “Right now, it’s chaotic” for those tasting rooms that have been approved, for those trying to get approved and for the public, she said.