Reining in the wineries

By Posted on Feb 18 2010 | By

Does proposed Fauquier County ordinance threaten not only wineries but the county itself?

Over the last year, Fauquier County has been wrestling with an issue of import to its twenty bonded wineries: should additional restrictions be placed on events and operating hours at these establishments.

Under the Code of Virginia, wineries are allowed to grow, harvest, vinify and offer on-premise wine tastings, sales, and consumption during regular business hours.

Virginia state law further provides wineries the right to operate such businesses without local regulation, unless there is a substantial impact on the health, safety, or welfare of the public. Therein lies the rub.

In some quarters, there is a belief that the county’s wine industry is, indeed, impinging on the welfare of the public, and these forces are pushing to increase local control over the industry. Why?

The trigger for much of the debate began a few years back when one county winery overstepped its bounds and began hosting outdoor events with loud amplified music attended by large crowds. The entrepreneurship displayed by this winery owner recently surfaced again when he and his wife made international headlines by showing up uninvited at a White House state dinner.

Since those early episodes of disregard for folks living near a winery, there have been only a small handful of complaints about such activities. And in virtually all cases, the wineries in question responded by eliminating functions that might upset the pastoral setting wherein they reside. Over the last year, there have been no formal complaints of winery misbehavior.

Nonetheless, the county is proceeding to create additional regulatory control beyond what the current law provides for. The most onerous of the proposals are to limit the size and number of both day and evening group events. Actual restrictions would range from no daytime group events to a once a month limit of two hundred people for an evening affair. The acreage of the winery would dictate specific limitations.

These controls are being debated during the worst recession in decades—and absent any actual lifestyle disruptions to the community itself. Again, why?

For almost a century, Fauquier County was a rural locality with little or no change. In 1860, its population was around 24,000. A hundred years later, the 1960 census reflected an increase of only 2,000 residents. Today, there are some 70,000 citizens enjoying the beauty and lifestyle of the historic county, almost a tripling of the population.

Such rapid change has created alarm in some well-placed circles, and understandably a desire to control and guide future growth. Laudable objectives few would oppose.

But consider some of the contributions the wine industry provides Fauquier County:

· Attracts 300,000 visitors annually, some ninety percent from outside the county. That’s revenue pumped into the local economy for which no corresponding county costs are incurred.

· Employs over 250 full or part-time employees.

· Generates $500,000 in state sales taxes, expected to jump to $1.5 million over the next two years. Fauquier County will receive 20 percent, or at least $300,000 of those revenues.

· Drives additional money into the local community through use of vendors who provide food, music and event equipment rentals.

· Protects over 600 acres of farmland from subdivision sprawl, while using little water and minimal pesticides and fertilizers that foul creeks and rivers.

· Creates over $60 million in private investment in agricultural lands.

Keeping these contributions in mind, reflect on the impact of reining in winery operations. Could it force some of these businesses to shutter their doors while discouraging others from opening new ventures? In an era of draconian budget cuts, the county cannot afford to slow job growth and reduce its tax base through these initiatives.

Notwithstanding the romance of owning a winery, the reality is it requires a large financial and labor-intensive commitment with a modest return on investment. Often what drives such investment is the desire for a lifestyle change as much as the creation of a business. Opening a typical winery requires an investment of several million dollars and up to ten years of labor before showing a profit. A line often heard in the industry is, “If you want to make a small fortune in Virginia wine, start with a large one.”

Proponents of more regulatory control claim one does not need to engage in events and extended hours to be successful. That’s likely true for a winery that has been in business for years. But debt is a looming shadow cast across most of the county’s newer vineyards, and retiring that obligation in a timely manner dictates maximizing business opportunities. It’s a simple matter of survival.

Further consideration of any change in county law should include the impact on the recreational enjoyment these establishments provide the public. Most wineries are situated in scenic settings with views of lakes, mountains and forest. Guests are often families seeking a day of respite from the hectic pace of their workaday world. Weddings, reunions, birthdays and anniversary celebrations are high on the list of events a winery hosts. To limit such activities would be to deprive the public of what is, in a real sense, a country club setting, albeit one with no membership restrictions, high initiation fees or annual dues. These are the people’s resorts.

Recently, a letter to the editor on the role of local wineries appeared in a county newspaper stating in part, “Where else can you take children, even pets, for a fun filled afternoon, at very modest prices? Only by going to one of the many wineries that offer music, food and, yes, wine, can one come to appreciate what a welcome relief this is. No video games, no large-screen TVs, no screaming crowds angry that a ref missed a call.” Where indeed?

In January, Fauquier County delayed taking any action on its proposed ordinance change for three months. Hopefully, the county will continue to work with the wine industry to assuage the concerns of those hoping to checkmate the important financial, agricultural and recreational contributions the industry has provided—and will continue to provide—our region.

Local wineries are a valued asset. They need our support not our control.

Published February 18, 2010 in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES