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Napa May Ring Wedding Bells

In recessionary times, wineries hope hosting weddings will draw customers; in Santa Ynez Valley, some residents are unhappy with wine tourism

Stephanie Cain, Lynn Alley
Posted: January 12, 2010

Napa Valley wineries may be saying "I do" to weddings on their properties.

According to Brides magazine, California wine country is one of the top destinations for weddings in the continental U.S. But while brides and grooms flock to the beautiful setting with dreams of saying their vows in the vineyards, they soon realize that it's not going to happen in Napa Valley: A long-standing county ordinance prohibits wineries from hosting such events.

"There are plenty of other places in the valley where you can get married, so no one is saying they want to be a 'wedding factory,' " Napa Valley Vintners' communications director Terry Hall said. "The question is, how does a wedding satisfy a business model with agriculture at the forefront?"

Signed in 1990, the Winery Definition Ordinance allows wineries to host marketing events associated with education and development but prohibits "cultural and social events unrelated to education and development." That includes weddings, parties and corporate events.

While the issue has been raised several times before, including after the 2000 dot-com bust and after Sept. 11, the current state of the economy has wineries seeking new avenues of revenue and marketing. Weddings bring in tens or hundreds of guests who will all drink the winery's offerings and leave with, most likely, a positive memory.

"How the market works is vastly different than 20 years ago," Hall said. "There is so much more direct-to-consumer sales. This is about marketing. Everyone is focused on doing more marketing."

St. Francis Winery in Sonoma has held weddings on his property since 2001. Sonoma does not restrict weddings in the same way as Napa Valley, and Christopher Silva, the winery's president and CEO, is glad. "It's a boost for a winery," Silva said. "Every person, every guest on the lawn who has a wonderful experience goes out as an ambassador. They help market the wines with their unique memory."

Merryvale, in downtown St. Helena, received permission from the city to host weddings on their property in March 2009. While Merryvale has only hosted one wedding thus far, special events planner Kelly Craig said that the winery has "seven or eight on the books" and has received hundreds of inquiries. "Momentum is picking up for us," she said. "I support the idea and would like to see other properties able to do the same."

But opponents argue that weddings will only bring in more traffic and people, with the potential environmental impact outweighing the possible increased revenue. Currently, the Napa Valley Vintners are working with various groups in the area, including the chamber of commerce, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, wineries and trade organizations to come to a consensus on how to proceed. Hall said that he wanted "to have a united community when bringing the issue to the table" at a meeting with the Napa County Board of Supervisors later this month.

Wedding planner Robbin Montero, owner of A Dream Wedding, noted that increased venues will not necessarily mean more events. "Regardless if I'm for or against, it's going to cause a saturation of weddings," she said. "It doesn't mean more people will get married or more people will come here. We'll just cut into the pie. It will get more competitive. Prices will drop; you can't charge the amounts being charged now. The only real winner will be the bride and groom."

Too Many Guests?

Meanwhile, in the southern half of the state, some residents of the tiny town of Los Olivos have decided too much winery tourism is a bad thing. The rustic town of about 1,000, located in the pastoral Santa Ynez Valley, a 40-minute drive north of Santa Barbara, has become a hub of winery tasting rooms in recent years.

In October 2009, a group of local residents asked the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to place a cap on the number of tasting rooms allowed in any given area. Residents have complained that the critical mass of tasting rooms in the town, coupled with a new law that allows tasting rooms to sell full glasses or bottles of wines to their customers, rather than restricting them to the traditional 1 ounce pour, is creating hassles for the local population, especially on weekends.

There are about 25 tasting rooms clustered within a two-block radius downtown, most belonging to small wineries that have no tasting rooms at their wineries. All are within easy walking distance of one another.

"I've heard they've had meetings, but that they've been unable to present any documented evidence of drunks in the street or problems related to alcohol consumption," said Mike Carhartt, co-owner of Carhartt Vineyard and a lifelong resident, who owns a tiny tasting room at one end of Grand Avenue, the town's main street. "The police just say they don't have any reports of trouble."

Some well-established wineries have also complained about increasing competition. Diana Longoria, who together with her husband, Rick, owns Longoria winery, said, "We're cutting the pie into increasingly small pieces. When we arrived, we were No. 4, and that was 11 years ago. The town is only two blocks long, and on my side of the street, out of nine storefronts, only one is not a winery tasting room." Longoria also pointed out that the town lacks adequate parking and has no sewer system. Visitors are expected to use portable bathrooms placed at strategic points around the town.

A larger issue is that the sleepy nature of the town is changing. New winery tasting rooms continue to move in and a favorite watering hole, Mattei's Tavern, built in 1886 as a stagecoach stop, has reportedly been sold to developers for a new hotel, restaurant and spa.

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