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Napa Valley ‘micro-wineries’ prepare for brave new era

Small producers in Napa Valley are gearing up for their first harvest after winning a four-year battle to obtain ‘micro-winery’ status.

Twenty-five producers joined forces to create a non-profit called Save the Family Farms, which lobbied the Napa County Board of Supervisors to create the new category.

In March 2022, the board unanimously approved the ‘micro-winery’ ordinance, providing craft producers in the region with a vital lifeline – it will make it easier for them to bring their wines to market, while also permitting them to host tastings for the first time.

The ordinance came into effect in May, and the region’s small producers are now adjusting to life in this brave new era.

‘The micro-winery ordinance will change the Napa Valley as we know it,’ said Elise Nerlove, a second-generation grape grower at the 3.2ha Elkhorn Park Cellars estate in South Napa, who serves as vice president of Save the Family Farms.

Back in 1990, Napa County laid out a legal definition for what constitutes a winery. One provision requires them to produce a minimum of 10,000 US gallons – or 2,000 cases – per year.

That prevented the producers in the Save the Family Farms group from obtaining ‘winery’ status, meaning they could not host tastings. That has seriously restricted their ability to ramp up sales in the direct-to-consumer channel.

Many sold out or went bust, so some of the remaining producers began the fight for a new ‘micro-winery’ category. When they succeeded in their long-running battle, Nerlove described it as ‘a preservation of yesteryear’.

These small, family-run operations will now be able to host tastings and unlock several additional benefits.

Any estate that produces between 201 and 5,000 US gallons per year can now apply for a ‘micro-winery’ permit, provided 75% of their grapes come from the property or owned adjacent parcels.

A traditional winery permit costs around $5 million to obtain. It requires a host of qualified consultants and it is a very time-consuming process. Micro-wineries, meanwhile, can pursue a streamlined application process. The applications will go straight to the Zoning Administrator, cutting out the need for Planning Commission approval, which should save three to four months.

The process will also be a lot cheaper, so the new category should start to take shape in the months ahead.

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