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California and the West | California Album: Santa Ynez

Squaring Off Over Vines, Wines

Santa Barbara County's boom in wineries and related tourism has prompted concerns about traffic and a proposed moratorium on tasting rooms.


SANTA YNEZ, Calif. — Call it the Great Grape Debate.

Wine lovers are swarming into this bucolic valley's tasting rooms as never before, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the local economy and making the local chardonnays and pinot noirs not just top crops, but also premier tourist draws.

Nearly 500,000 visitors sipped and spit at Santa Barbara County wineries in 1998, buying 71,000 cases of wine for $10.7 million in tasting room sales.

But neighbors worry that the rapid expansion of the county's most prominent industry could shatter the tranquillity of this valley, and are urging county leaders to look at tighter regulations for wine-sellers.

"It has all happened so fast," said county Supervisor Gail Marshall. "There have been some real economic positives, but there are other issues. The impacts of having a retail component in a rural area are substantial."

Marshall recently proposed a temporary moratorium on tasting rooms in the heart of the valley, where ranch houses and boutique wineries bump up next to each other.

Tasting rooms here draw wine enthusiasts off state highways to the back roads connecting Solvang, Los Olivos and Santa Ynez. It's that traffic that bothers some.

"Wine country has been good for the area," said 53-year-old Keith Hopman, whose family has lived in Santa Ynez since 1961. But the cars on his road each weekend "just come flying down."

Residents also have griped about noise from concerts, weddings and other special events booked by wineries to promote their labels. Complaints prompted the county two years ago to limit one winery's events.

Residents and winemakers also have clashed over the removal of oak trees in the valley to make room for more vineyards. The issue came to a head two years ago, with an unsuccessful ballot measure to restrict oak tree removal.

Winemakers are the first to say their industry is increasingly at odds with its neighbors. They see it as a classic growth issue that has confronted agricultural areas of California for decades.

And many vintners worry that the situation will get worse as more and more people flee cities and migrate up the Central Coast in search of quieter surroundings.

"We are at a little bit of a crossroads right now," said Adam Firestone, president of Firestone Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in Santa Barbara County. "You've got a growing residential population trying to reconcile with a more traditional agricultural setting."

Although the county's wine roots date back more than 200 years, the first modern vineyards were planted only about 30 years ago. According to the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Assn., the region didn't gain wide recognition until the late 1980s.

Since then, wine production has exploded. There are more than 16,500 acres of vineyards in the county, producing mostly chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, compared with 5,500 acres six years ago.

The number of wineries grew from 34 in 1992 to 56 in 1998, and annual sales soared from $59 million to $136 million during the same period, according to a vintners' association study last summer.

The wine industry is the county's leading agricultural producer, bringing $44 million into the economy and boosting tourism.

"It's a great draw," said Jackie Traylor, executive director of the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau. "We give out a great deal of wine maps. It's definitely a plus for the area."

This is not the first community in California to worry that unchecked commercial growth from tasting rooms and wine-promoting special events could have long-lasting negative effects. Napa County faced the same issue 12 years ago.

Concerns there focused mostly on traffic and a slippery land use question: Should commercial and industrial uses, such as tasting rooms and bottling plants, be allowed in a traditionally agricultural setting?

While officials studied the issue, a temporary moratorium on new wineries was approved in 1988. After a series of contentious public hearings, Napa County supervisors in 1990 passed a strict winery ordinance, allowing tastings at new wineries only by appointment. The law also restricts special events.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Marshall believes the time has come for her community to develop similar guidelines. She maintains that a long-range plan for growth in the Santa Ynez Valley is long overdue, and winemakers agree that such a blueprint is needed.

But they disagree about the need for a moratorium on tasting rooms.

Marshall wants to stop any new tasting rooms from opening until a growth plan can be developed--a process that could take years. Winemakers call it a blanket restriction that isn't necessary.

Fiddlehead Cellars owner Kathy Joseph is one vintner who would be kept from opening a tasting room by such a move.

Four years ago, she bought 100 acres near Lompoc and planted grapes. She has no tasting room on the property, but wants the right to open one.

"I wouldn't want to have my options closed off," she said.

Marshall's plan is expected to go to the Board of Supervisors in coming weeks.

Marshall said her plan is not intended to harm the industry, but is a logical response to its growth.

"Once the numbers begin to rise and you start to see the impacts," she said, "you have to begin to establish parameters."

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