Zo wine

The Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council (DCVCAC) voted to recommend part of a winery permit modification from Zo Wines. Part of the permit modification request was approved in a 4-0 vote during the council’s Jan. 16 meeting, with new councilmember Bob Mullen absent (Mullen left just prior to the motion being introduced).

While Zo Wines requested both an increase in production capacity and allowing public wine tasting and events, the permit recommendation applied to Zo Wines' production capacity request and did not include any of the visitor-serving use modifications that were requested.

Zo Wines request was continued from the DCVCAC’s September meeting. Owner David Eckert said that in the interim, he modified his request to better address some of the concerns voiced by the council and the public during the Sept. 19 meeting.

The proposal

Zo Wines is applying for a use permit that would modify the existing winery to raise maximum production from 600 to 5,000 cases in addition to other changes.

The winery is also completing a lot line adjustment to join a 13-acre vineyard property with the 1.35-acre property that the winery currently operates on.

“What we need to do in order to make that 5,000 case production work on the facility is combine two existing structures to make one larger interior space to allow us to move production of the processing of the fruit and the storage of the barrels and the finished production to the interior space,” Eckert said. “Right now it’s a mixture of interior and exterior space.”

Eckert said that, as a result of this plan, Zo Wines will move from externally sourced fruit to sourcing fruit from the property’s adjoining land. Due to the proposed increased production, Zo Wines is also requesting an increase in the number of potential employees from one person to eight full-time employees, with two seasonal workers.

While not ultimately included in the council’s recommendation to the county, Zo Wines’ revised proposal also included changes to the winery’s event uses.

According to a revised project summary provided by Eckert during the meeting, the new proposal for events involves hosting 15 agricultural, winery and industry promotional event days per year, rather than the initially proposed 34. Of those event days, one may be held outside of business hours, can contain up to 60 people and will go no later than 10 p.m. Ten of the event days can be during business hours for industry-wide events with 120 concurrent people, and four of the event days will be winery-sponsored, during business hours and with 60 concurrent people.

The proposal also states that the winery “may host 16 normal business activity days per year that may be held outside business hours, only on weekdays, that must end by 9 p.m.”

“Activities” refer to direct sales activities (eight with consumers and eight with tradespeople) and have a maximum capacity of 30 people, but tend to average lower. “Events” refer specifically to promotional events like businesses or groups coming in, or for larger events such as Sonoma Passport.

While the initial proposal included the construction of a tasting room, the new proposal does not. The new proposal also includes the creation of a walkway in the vineyard that is being constructed in an attempt to direct foot traffic away from neighboring properties, as to reduce the possibility of wanderers.

The bulk of public comment regarding Zo Wines’ request centered around neighborhood concern about having more proposed events in the area.

West Dry Creek resident Charlee Schanzer spoke about how she believed adding to the concentration of businesses could be detrimental to the “rural character” of Dry Creek.

“There are 10 parcels within half a mile of the location that support visitor-serving attractions and public tasting rooms. These, although they are agriculturally based, actually are commercial in nature. Obviously another public tasting room with events within this concentrated area just adds to the degradation of the rural nature of the area,” Schanzer said. “It’s time for the council to take up this issue, it’s mandated and I think it’s fundamental to any use application that comes before you.”

“While this may be 15 acres, which is 25% less than the guidelines, all of the production and the consumer activities are being proposed on the still-1.3 acre property, which is smack in the middle of all the neighbors,” said Heather Elder, holding up a map of Eckert’s properties. One of the guidelines set for a property with visitor serving agricultural uses recommends the property be a minimum of 20 acres. “When we purchased our property 20 years ago, the Matsons lived here on this little piece of property and they had their 500 case winery. We never thought that there could ever be a possibility that it could increase and their use permit increase 600%. We thought we’d be buying into a neighborhood where we could create our memories with our children and eventually retire.”

Vicky Farrow, who has property to the north of Eckert, spoke out in favor of his plan, which she views as supporting the vision of agriculture-zoned land.

“This project has changed a lot since it first came here, and when it was first presented, I thought it was not consistent with the guidelines and not appropriate given that there are homes around it. I think David has done an incredible job of talking to the neighbors, of listening to us, had several meetings, had conversations, and scaled it back dramatically,” Farrow said. “Philosophically we support this because Sonoma County decided to set aside ag zones to preserve agriculture … we are on land zoned for agriculture and although some of us do live there, it’s not a rural residential neighborhood — it’s zoned for ag, and ag brings with it the production of crops, the processing of products and also promotion. Those three things are not only allowed … but they are the priority use in the ag zones.”

While other councilmembers expressed hesitation to go against the 20 acre guideline set for parcels with use permits with visitor-serving agricultural uses, President Jenny Gomez said that Eckert’s actions and willingness to reach out to neighbors and make changes makes him the right choice to be an exception to the guideline.

“I feel passionately that Zo Wines is the type of winery that I want in Dry Creek,” Gomez said. “I want them to succeed. They’re kind. They’re thoughtful. They see the Dry Creek in the way I envision the future of Dry Creek to be … I completely understand everyone’s fears, but I’ve been there at large events. I think that he’s been so thoughtful — he’s even removed his tasting room.

“If we are so terrified to let someone of this caliber actually work and create the type of vineyards that we want, then we are going to make room for the kind of vineyards we don’t want … I think they are going to preserve the nature of our wonderful agriculture. I don’t look at this and go, ‘he’s adding a tasting room in the vineyard,’ he’s trying to expand and keep his business from going under.”

Prior to the item being discussed, the council secretary made it known that the Dry Creek Valley Association requested that the item be postponed until February, since the association felt it didn’t have enough time to review the revised version. 

The DCVCAC makes recommendations to the county to approve or deny vineyard, winery and cannabis applications in the Dry Creek Valley area.

Councilmember Bill Smith was hesitant to recommend the application because it would be precedent-setting when it came to the council not following its 20-acre guideline, he said.

When the permit proposal as a whole came up for recommendation, the motion to recommend it failed 3-2 (to pass, the motion needed a 4-1 vote) with Smith and Mullen as the dissenting votes. Mullen left the meeting following the vote.

Smith then reintroduced the motion, only recommending the increase of Zo Wines’ production capacity. The motion passed 4-0.

A cannabis growth permit was also discussed (and tabled) during the Jan. 16 DCVCAC meeting. Check back next week for an article about the discussion.

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