During a beautiful summer wedding set off by scenic Lodi vineyards, what should be the focus of the day? According to current San Joaquin County codes, it’s not the bride. It’s the 2008 Cabernet being served with dinner.
Local winemakers are wondering how to draw the line between what is a true winery and what is an event center thinly disguised with beautiful vineyard landscaping.
Much of the land surrounding Lodi is deemed strictly agricultural by the Williamson Act. It’s no problem for wineries to invite people in, as long as they are promoting their brand, the product and the crop.
The line blurs when it comes to weddings or concerts that aren’t strictly wine-related.
That debate has come to a head as plans move forward for a new winery on Davis Road near Turner Road.
Konstantino “Gus” Kapiniaris currently has a tasting room to showcase Stama wines in Lockeford. But when a 10-acre plot of land was available in an area popular with wineries and tourists, he bought it and made extensive plans for a large new winery.
The San Joaquin County Planning Commission approved the project, but several neighbors appealed, calling it an event center cleverly disguised as a winery.
The Kapiniaris family is baffled that their plans are being contested.
“We’re doing what we need to do for our businesses to expand,” said son Frank Kapiniaris.
Limits on winery row
There are already three large wineries in the Turner and Davis area, including Lucas Winery, Abundance Vineyards and Jessie’s Grove Winery.
These wineries hold what are considered marketing events, according to a county ordinance from 10 years ago. The intention was that any gatherings would be used to promote and sell the wine made on-site.
Jessie’s Grove on Turner Road is a veritable treasure trove of concerts, summer children’s theater, fundraiser events, bike races and mud runs, along with winetasting and winemaker boot camps. But owner Suzanne Burns says all of these tap into the artistic atmosphere she cultivates at the winery, along with about 260 acres of grapes.
“We’re enhancing the arts and the wine region to show all who visit the quality of grapes and culture that exist in our Lodi Appellation,” she said.
Burns is aware of and tries to limit the number of marketing events with respect to her country neighborhood.
“There should be limits and restrictions to keep the public safe, both the participants of the events and travelers on the country roads. All wineries have been educated and do a great job with respect to alcohol serving limits,” she said.
There have been some complaints that some wineries host too many events, but Jessie’s Grove has received the opposite: complaints of not enough events, said Burns.
Abundance Vineyards, just around the corner from the contested location, got so many complaints from neighbors that the county required additional regulations.
Last summer, Abundance had a music series planned, but they were required to put in additional lighting, install “no parking” signs on Turner Road, and keep a decibel meter on-site to manage sound levels, according to Courtney Christy. The changes weren’t completed until August 2011.
“Basically, what we were forced to comply with had nothing to do with noise,” said Christy. “What it boiled down to was that (neighbors) didn’t like us being here and doing what we’re doing.”
Regular events at Abundance include live music, picnics, food vendors and some small-scale, casual parties and weddings, said Christy. They also sell wine by the glass, apart from standard tastings.
At Lucas Winery, Dave Lucas regularly hosts wine and food pairings, winemaker dinners and grape-growing educational programs.
Because he lives on site, Lucas is very aware of how neighbors are affected by development in the area.
“Most wineries are really great and good neighbors, but agricultural (land) in general has been encroached upon by development,” he said.
Lucas isn’t against wineries. He just wants them to focus on the wine, and not moneymaking events. He’s leading the charge against Stama Winery to make sure the Kapiniaris family doesn’t overstep their rights. At the same time, the group is trying to craft an ordinance to outline more specifically what a winery is and what they can do.
“I don’t want to make it so that small wineries can’t have wine club events and wine education events. Wine is made for the table — it’s part of poetry, religious ceremonies, and a gracious mealtime experience,” Lucas said.
Considering the neighbors
Some neighbors say there are wide loopholes in the current definition of a marketing event.
“I don’t know who put the definition of ‘marketing event’ together, but it is definitely exploited,” said Tamara Rible, who lives about 90 feet north of Abundance. “I’ve lived here for 37 years, and I specifically bought my property because it was peaceful, it was quiet.”
After dealing with last summer’s conflicts with Abundance, Rible is wary of any new winery in the area.
Original plans for Stama Winery included a commercial kitchen and a stage in the first phase of production.
“Where is the winery in that?” asked Rible.
Fred Donald lives on Davis Road near Turner, and has seen quite a few wineries pop up in the area near his home. The 10 acres in question used to be a portion of his family’s land.
“Turner Road is becoming a corridor of wineries. Property is being appraised not as a vineyard or orchard, but as a winery,” said Donald. “Where I live, on a Saturday night, I can hear music from Abundance half a mile away, and Jessie’s Grove, which is three-quarters of a mile away. This new place is 700 feet from my home. Theoretically, I could have a lot going on.”
All he asks of incoming startups is that they become a winery first before creating an event center.
Donald checked out the plans for Stama Winery when they first came to the county. A commercial kitchen and a large stage stood out as red flags to him. He also feels the plot is too small and will not have enough grapes to buffer the sounds of winery events.
“Wineries we don’t mind. But events shouldn’t be what make the money for you to exist,” said Donald.
A new winery ordinance doesn’t yet exist, but it is definitely on the minds of local growers.
In the past, the county has considered the impact of new wineries on a parcel-by-parcel basis instead of considering the cumulative impact of several wineries having events on a summer weekend.
Each winery is permitted 30 marketing events a year, with a limit on amplified music and the number of people attending. Anything more requires a permit. But the best weather for outdoor events is from April to October, and the best time is on weekend nights. With several locations concentrated in one area, that’s a pretty small window.
It’s not feasible to deal with the problem by outlawing all public events at wineries. These are businesses that market their products by associating them with a good time and atmosphere, said Kate Patterson of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau.
Current county code says weddings and live music are reasonable marketing events, but Patterson disagrees, saying events should be subordinate to the business of winemaking.
“If you told a bride she wasn’t the central focus of the day, she would not take it well,” said Patterson.
But changing the ordinance means waiting for the county’s general plan to move, or paying $10,000 to submit an amendment. In the meantime, all the neighbors can do is work with wineries to come to a reasonable agreement.
Other wine country solutions
A similar situation cropped up in Napa County in the late 1980s.
The Napa Valley winery definition ordinance was put into place to prevent wineries from doing anything beyond making and selling wine, according to Rex Stults, industry relations director for Napa Valley Vintners.
Some locations were focusing on weddings, hosting concerts and becoming restaurants. In 1990, the Napa County Board of Supervisors defined a winery as a place where wine was made and promoted. Permitted events would include only tours, winetasting, marketing and sourcing grapes.
Those wineries that had permits to host weddings, concerts and other similar events could continue. But no new permits would be allowed. Two years ago, the ordinance was relaxed slightly to allow food and wine pairing events.
“We’re a very small, rural agricultural area and need to be very cautious in the way we do things,” said Stults.
In Sonoma County, it’s a whole different story.
Sigrid Swedenborg manages winery permits for the county and says her decisions are absolutely project-specific.
It’s necessary in a county with such a range of winery locations. Some are tucked away on rural roads, while others sit on the edge of the highway. Some can have 2,000 guests or 150 events a year. Others are cut off at 17 people.
Swedenborg doesn’t get many complaints.
“We have more issues with events that are commercial in nature, like a wedding where someone is renting the location. But we do find that can bring name-brand recognition and be a marketing tool for the winery,” she said.
Waiting for the green light
The Kapiniaris family say they have not been contacted personally by the group concerned about what events might be held on their new property.
The appeal will go before the board of supervisors on Feb. 28.
The appeals process has put the father-son team two months behind on their project. They had planned to have crushing machinery ready to go for the 2012 harvest. At this rate, the site won’t be ready in time.
“If it is not built in time, it is going to hurt us. Who is going to pay those extra costs?” Frank Kapiniaris asked.
Frank Kapiniaris said the word “stage” was a mistake. The area is a raised patio for picnics and enjoying wine. And a commercial kitchen is a health code necessity when preparing food for wine and food pairings or a wine club dinner.
The Kapiniaris family does have acreage on Harney Lane, Locust Tree Road and Kennefick Road, but it wasn’t what they considered an ideal site for a winery.
There’s more traffic near Turner Road on the west side of town, and it’s closer to the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center.
Once the winemaking buildings are set up, there will be about 5 acres of grapes on site, including Chardonnay, Barbera, Pinot noir and Pinot grigio. That’s enough for 560 cases of wine from each varietal.
The family does not plan to have amplified music. The compound will be surrounded by a thick wall to block sound from projecting out of the area.
Frank Kapiniaris doesn’t understand why his winery is being targeted when they haven’t held any events at the Davis Road property or violated any codes. He’s looking forward to the day when construction is complete, the hassles are over and wine is flowing freely at Stama Winery.
“How can we be destroying the ambiance when we are making something beautiful?” Frank Kapiniaris asked.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.