I'm standing in William Holzhauer's hilltop backyard in Ramona, looking out over his soon-to-be-finished winery and surveying the surrounding scene. He points to a nearby lot. "See that big gray rock? The owners are going to put a winery building there." He shifts his gaze to the valley below. "See that new roof going in down there? That's a winery — you can see the grapes on the right-hand side. There's one more winery two roads over, and back [farther], there's another. We could actually ride our horses to five wineries."
The Ramona Wine Trail seems to be on its way toward fruition — great news. At least, for the wineries. Not everyone is entirely enthusiastic, and Holzhauer can sympathize with the opposition's concerns. "I don't want to live next to Thornton winery," he says. (It's not that Thornton is given to all-night bacchanals, but they do host jazz concerts.) Even so, he finds it odd that "there are maybe 35 bonded wineries in San Diego County, and maybe eight tasting rooms. I agree that my operation should be limited. If I'm going to have big parties, I should get a major-use permit. But as it is, for you to have a taste of wine at my place and buy a bottle of wine from me makes me a bootlegger. That's not right."
According to Ramona Valley Vineyard Association secretary Carolyn Harris, it's not right because wine is, in the end, an agricultural product, and farmers are generally allowed to sell their products onsite for full retail prices. If it's true for pumpkins and cider, she argues, it ought to be true for wine.
Of course, wine isn't exactly like pumpkins — odds are, if you like pumpkin, you're going to like most any pumpkin you buy. Wine is a touch more variable, and you can't drink a label. That's why Harris also argues that introducing the product to the customer via a tasting room is crucial for a fledgling winery's success. Because of this, Harris and several other members of the Ramona wine scene have brought a proposal before the San Diego Board of Supervisors. What they're asking: that the County Department of Planning and Land Use allow the smallest of wineries — under certain conditions — to sell wine onsite for offsite consumption as a right of zoning, a right that would include a tasting room. (And beyond the question of try-before-you-buy, there's the tourism factor. San Diego is a tourist-heavy region. The way a winery can tap into that is by inviting folks — including Julian-bound tourists — out to the vineyards to take in the scenery and, should the mood strike them, buy a bottle or two.)
The proposal has met with a small but vocal measure of public protest, much of it focusing on the proximity of wineries to nearby residences. "San Diego County has specifically designated certain areas of the county for ag," replies Harris. "Some of those areas have fairly small lot sizes — instead of 100-acre parcels, you might have 3-, 5-, or 10-acre parcels." (Some 60 percent of San Diego County farms are 9 acres or less.) "We're starting to learn about some people who really thought they were on residential property." This may be because there were, well, residences on the properties all around them. Comments Harris, "These are not properties with absent landlords; almost all the ag-zoned properties have a resident in place, with children" and various other residential-type features. "But the fact is, they're A-70 and A-72 parcels, designated as zoned for ag, whether or not they're currently being used for ag. It's kind of like when you move in next to an airport and start complaining about the airplanes."
Still, Harris says that the proposal is not dismissive of neighborhood concerns. "We live here, too," she says of the winery owners. "All of us have been here a long time, and we appreciate that this is as much our home as our business area. We're trying to customize the proposed boutique winery ordinance to be as minimally impactful as possible. We modeled it after San Joaquin County, which has four categories of size and activity level for a given winery, with restrictions applied in an appropriate fashion. The very smallest operation, which we're labeling as a boutique winery, produces only 5000 cases a year." That's the size that would get a tasting room as a right of zoning. Anything larger would have to pull permits — administrative, minor use, or major use, depending on size and activity. "We took the models used in other counties and dialed it down for our environment — especially neighborhoods like Holzhauer's, where neighbors can see one another."
Neighborhoods like Holzhauer's also have this consideration: they are accessed by private roads, roads that are neither maintained nor policed by the county. "That's really become a big issue," grants Harris. "And it's an issue in other counties that have wineries along private roads. Some of them have said, 'You can have a winery with a tasting room if you have a road maintenance agreement,' so that there's an understanding among the neighbors regarding the fact that there is a winery with limited public hours along that road. In other words: work it out amongst yourselves how to handle it. Without that, you need to go and get a permit, so we're entertaining that type of restriction. The dilemma is that there is no other ag product for sale in San Diego County that requires a private road agreement. If you have a Christmas tree farm, a pumpkin patch, a cider mill...the county regs don't require a private road agreement to have a farmstand."
Of course, there's another way that wine is different from those other ag products: it's fermented. "Right," says Harris. "It does have alcohol. The license is for onsite sale for offsite consumption. It does contain a liberty for sampling prior to purchase, but a sample is just enough to understand what the wines are. Maybe the neighbors don't understand what this boutique category is all about — they figure you're going to have a drinkfest. But that would be contrary to the state license. And there are DUI laws in this state, so the responsibility of wine tasters always applies. We've looked at the DUI stats from some of the other wine counties, and it's interesting to find that wine-tasting regions do not have a higher incidence of DUI than any other regions. We've pulled articles where the CHP is being interviewed, people who might have an issue in [wine-tasting] areas. They've said that typically they're dealing with residents of the region, not wine tasters. We're as concerned as any other citizen about DUI, but the statistics, tragic as they are, do not focus on the demographic of the typical wine taster."