Permits to build wineries have become ‘like gold’ in Napa Valley amid rising debate among officials, residents and winemakers over the number of estates the region can sustain.

Several hundred people were reported to have attended a meeting of Napa County’s planning committee and board of supervisors this week, convened specifically to address what new restrictions, if any, should be placed on Napa Valley winery and vineyard proposals.

The meeting is set to foster several months of discussion, putting the issue higher up the political agenda at a time when Napa – and California in general – is enjoying one of the most successful sales periods in its wine history. Key concerns include the capacity of valley’s roads to absorb traffic and environmental sustainability, including water needs and deforestation.

‘These days it is harder and harder to get a winery permit,’ said Janet Trefethen, of Trefethen Family Vineyards. ‘They are like gold now.’

There are close to 400 wineries in Napa Valley and around 700 grape growers, according to trade body Napa Valley Vintners. Its figures show that 46,000 jobs are also linked to the wine industry.

Trefethen said that not all winemakers were agreed on what to do about limiting winery and vineyard growth, and neither were all residents against new wineries being built in the region.

‘It’s a huge decision,’ she told Decanter.com. ‘There have been lots of neighbourhood meetings and people actively voicing their concerns both ways. So far, people have been civil and listened.’

Rosemary Cakebread, winemaker and owner at Gallica Wine, a small boutique producer, said, ‘People are working hard and being pragmatic. The end goal is to make sure this place remains an agricultural area. We are confident we can manage the water and the traffic.’

There is concern in some quarters about the number of tourists visiting Napa Valley – there were 3.8m winery visits in 2012, according to a Napa Valley Vintners economic impact report. Direct sales can be an important source of income for smaller estates, but some critics warn that traffic is clogging roads.

‘Yes, we’re experiencing growing pains, but people have been complaining about this for 20 years,’ said Chris Kajani, winemaker at Saintsbury, which also sources fruit from Carneros, further south.

‘But this place is our showcase. And if people want to come and see it, I am not going to complain.’

Separately, Napa Valley Vintners last month launched a plan to get all of its members signed up to its Napa Green environmental certification programme by 2020. Currently, one third of Napa County vineyard land is certified, said Susan Boswell, of Chateau Boswell Winery in St Helena and who sits on the trade body’s board.

(Additional reporting by John Stimpfig)

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Written by Chris Mercer