Agriculture

Winemakers' plans arouse objections from neighbors

Cohorst holds a few grapes that were left on vines after harvest. He said he is struggling financially with what he makes selling his wine to retailers.
Cohorst holds a few grapes that were left on vines after harvest. He said he is struggling financially with what he makes selling his wine to retailers. AP

RAMONA -- Don Cohorst has acres of vineyards, a stash of small-batch vin- tages and a barn he wants to turn into a cozy tasting room for vino-sipping visitors.

He's convinced he can ply those wine lovers with samples of his syrah and Muscat Canelli and sell them single bottles for as much as $20, more than twice the price he now gets from several small retailers.

But his plan and those of many other winemakers in California have been scuttled by a growing backlash among residents who don't want tipsy tourists weaving through their quiet communities, possibly putting locals at risk while increasing traffic congestion and noise.

"It creates a heavy liability with bringing in a whole lot of the public, particularly if they have been tasting wine," said Carol Angus, a resident of the Ramona Valley east of San Diego, where Cohorst grows his grapes among the boulder-studded hills.

With wine consumption booming in the United States, more vineyards are taking a cue from areas like Napa and Sonoma and marketing themselves as destinations for oenophiles.

The number of visitors to California wineries has nearly doubled from about 11 million in 1998 to almost 20 million in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available from the Wine Institute, a trade group.

Wine tourism contributed $2 billion to the California economy in 2006, up from $1.2 billion in 1998, according to the organization.

Earlier this year, Cohorst and other small vintners persuaded San Diego County supervisors to support an ordinance allowing them to open tasting rooms and sell up to 5,000 cases of wine a year without special permits.

Opponents, however, threatened to sue, arguing the county had not adequately studied the effects on traffic and the environment.

The county put the ordinance on hold while planners conduct a study that could take two years to complete.

Cohorst, 75, a retired aerospace engineer, dismissed fears that a tasting room boom would put more drunken drivers on the road.

Napa County sheriff's Capt. John Robertson said tasting rooms have not been a major problem in that area. Some drunken driving cases can be attributed to the sites, but overall, wine tasting has not been a significant safety issue, he said.

In addition, many of those wineries charge $10 or more for a few small samples, making tasting rooms expensive places to do much drinking. True connoisseurs taste then spit the wine into countertop buckets.

Still, residents around the state are concerned.

In Los Olivos, nestled in the Santa Barbara County wine country featured in the 2004 film "Sideways," residents plan to propose a land use ordinance to stop the opening of tasting rooms.

In rural Placer County in northeast California, residents are battling a proposal similar to the Ramona Valley ordinance. And in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of the San Francisco Bay area, opposition has stopped permits that allow tasting rooms to host fund-raisers, weddings and other major events.

Cohorst is convinced that tasting rooms are needed to sustain his four-acre operation and the nascent wine renaissance in the Ramona Valley, a region that had been carpeted with vineyards before Prohibition.

The Napa and Sonoma valleys survived Prohibition because of the proximity to freight rail lines that allowed grapes to be shipped to home winemakers around the country.

But wine grapes in the more remote Ramona Valley were plowed under during the dry years of Prohibition in favor of citrus fruits and other crops.

A new wave of winemakers began planting grapes in the mid-1990s, but the region still produces much less wine than most other wine regions in the state.

Its roughly 15 licensed vintners bottled just a few thousand gallons last year, though much more is now in production, said Carolyn Harris, a leader of the Ramona Valley Vineyard Association.

The effort got a boost in 2006, when federal officials recognized the valley as a wine appellation -- a wine grape-growing region with a unique combination of soil, climate and topography.

Appellations are an important marketing tool for vintners, who use the designation to distinguish their wine. Napa and Sonoma are widely known appellations among wine connoisseurs.

Cohorst thinks a tasting room will also help him market his wine. He is struggling to make ends meet on the money he collects selling to retailers and has had to finance his four-year-old operation with assets gained during previous careers as a rocket-parts maker, Christmas tree farmer and steakhouse franchisee.

He believes he could make a decent retirement income if he could sell directly to consumers.

"I'd be making money instead of spending money," he said.

  Comments