Napa Valley winemakers have more on their minds than the quality of the 2009 vintage, and how to sell expensive wines in challenging times. Wineries, businesses, residents and visitors have a lot riding on a pending February 2010 decision by the Napa County Board of Supervisors, on whether to loosen the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO), enacted in 1990 to protect agricultural lands and prevent uncontrolled growth of non-agricultural tourism in the county. The WDO specifies that wineries started after 1990 cannot, among other things, use their properties for weddings, concerts or corporate retreats; allow picnicking; pour samples for visitors without appointments; and operate restaurants.

Producers established prior to 1990 can continue their operations. Robert Mondavi Winery kept its summer concert series, Sterling Vineyards’ aerial tram still transports visitors to the top of the knoll for tastings, Domaine Chandon’s Etoile restaurant continues to dish up fine meals, and V Sattui Winery’s deli and picnic area remain popular with the tour-bus set.

Now, as Napa wineries struggle in a tough economy while consumers move to less expensive wines, some vintners say they could stay in business if only they could book a dozen weddings a year, open a café, or welcome visitors without appointments.

The loudest voice for softening the WDO comes from hotels, restaurants, caterers, event planners, florists and transportation providers who argue that concessions are needed for the good of their businesses, to avoid job cuts, and to keep visitors’ tax dollars flowing into Napa County coffers, which, like most local governments, are empty.

Proponents of an amended WDO also suggest that Napa could lose business to more visitor-friendly wine regions like Sonoma, Mendocino, the Sierra Foothills, Livermore and the Santa Cruz Mountains, which have less regulation of commercial activities at wineries (though they will face that awakening one day, I’m sure).

Many Napa Valley vintners, residents and environmentalists who joined in 1968 to create the Agricultural Preserve, which protects some 14,500ha of land from non-agricultural development, are opposed to altering the WDO. They fear that amending it is a short-term solution that will, in the long run, turn Napa Valley into a Disneyland, a sea of neon signs, noise, traffic jams and massive parking lots where vines once grew.

The image of Napa and the prestige of its wines are built on a grape pricing structure in which high-end fruit is sold for $3,000–$25,000 a tonne, depending on quality and vineyard location. Those grape costs are reflected in bottle prices, a concept many consumers don’t grasp. One Napa Valley grower charges $25,000 per tonne for his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, requiring that the winery which buys them sells each bottle of finished wine for a $250 retail price.

This pricing also allows the Agriculture Preserve to exist. If Napa Valley wine grapes didn’t cost as much as they do, the land would be more profitable as sites for tract homes, shopping malls, amusement parks, fast-food outlets and motels – a bedroom community to San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. Yet with regulation, Napa’s vineyards remain romantic draws to visitors, bucolic reasons for residents to stay, and a resource worth protecting, economic crisis be damned.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors asked the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Winegrowers and Napa Valley Vintners organisations to come up with recommendations for amending – or not – the WDO, by 31 January, weighing the needs of businesses and employees against those of residents and environmentalists, and the need to preserve Napa Valley as an agricultural region.

The decision is difficult, with no obvious solution. I live in Sonoma wine country, having left a big Southern California city for a less hectic life, surrounded by beautiful scenery and warm, down-home people. I don’t live in Napa Valley, but I’m close enough to see that its development concerns are also mine, and those of my neighbours.

Movie producer/director Francis Ford Coppola is already revamping the former Chateau Souverain winery in northern Sonoma County, now called Rosso & Bianco, into a museum for his cinematic collection, along with a restaurant, water slides, cabanas and illuminated pyramids on the tops of the buildings. Across the Alexander Valley, the Indian-owned River Rock Casino plans to expand to a Tuscan-style resort. Vineyard owners are not happy but the gamblers seem thrilled.

All wine regions have their growing pains and crossroads and Napa is facing that now. How the WDO decision goes is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: it won’t please everyone.

Written by Linda Murphy