Archive for the ‘Compliance’ Category

Red tape redux

Monday, October 28th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

It wasn’t too many weeks ago that I thought we were pulling into the home stretch in getting our winery/tasting room going. Maybe we still are. I just don’t know.

We have been fighting (maybe a little bit too strong of a word but that’s how it feels) with Building and Safety which had rejected our latest set of plans for various reasons all of which would have been very expensive (probably prohibitively so) to do. After a few more skirmishes, Building and Safety saw the light, and all looked good.

And I can’t say anything looks all that bad at the moment either. But I can say we still do not have our permit in hand. Why? I’m not altogether sure.

I heard through the grapevine that the septic issue, which I thought was history, is still generating “discussions” between the county, state, and our septic engineer. What those discussions involve, I really couldn’t tell you. It’s certainly not for lack of trying to find out, but it seems that is just the way it is.

I have something I am going to say, but before I say it, I want to make a disclaimer. I am not a member of the tea party. To the contrary, I am probably as far to the left as one could be without being considered extreme. I have been a Democrat all my life, and if there were a party to the left of that that was it at all viable, I’d probably join it. I have voted for Obama twice and I’m quite certain I will vote for whoever is the next Democratic candidate for president.

As far as I can tell, the Republican Party has simply lost it.

I say all of this so that you, the reader, can appreciate that I’m not some right wing nut as you read what follows.

I have a dream. It’s certainly not a dream anything close to Martin Luther King’s dream, but it’s a dream nonetheless.

In this dream, I decide that I want to open a winery and tasting room. I figure out what I need to do that, I buy the materials, and lease the premises. From when I decide I want to go forward to when I actually open the doors is a month or two. Probably two months, but maybe closer to one if I really work at it to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.

Not much of a dream you might say. And I guess I would have to agree with you on that. It’s not so much that the dream is such a doozy but that the reality is such a nightmare.

And that’s the crux of it. It’s not so much that the dream is special, but at least it’s not a nightmare.

The problem isn’t what you need to physically do to get up and going. It’s instead getting the entitlements you need from a host of government agencies. Being in the alcohol business makes it that much worse, because on top of everything a normal business needs to do you need to get your entitlements from both the state and the feds.

But what should be something that otherwise would take some number of weeks instead is taking well over a year. Every step of the way, you’re dealing with some agency that is just doing its job.

If I contact someone about supplying a piece of equipment for the winery, I get what is pretty much an immediate response. Maybe immediate is a little bit of an exaggeration, but not a whole lot. After all his livelihood depends upon people like me buying his goods.

When you seek a government entitlement, it couldn’t be more different. The people you deal with do not depend upon you, and you’re getting your entitlement, for their bread and butter. Whether they process your application in a day a week a month or a year doesn’t really affect their paycheck. I do not mean to disparage them in any way. The people that I have come in contact have been hard-working, conscientious, and well-meaning. But there is just no getting around the fact that someone without a clear benefit to gain from doing whatever it is you want him to do is simply not going to do it with that same level of enthusiasm.

It doesn’t help either that pretty much every government agency is budget challenged, so they are all handling more work than their staffing levels can handle.

But I think the greater problem isn’t the lack of proper incentives for the bureaucrats, but the nature of the bureaucracy itself. What makes it particularly difficult is that there is such a plethora of rules and regulations that you need to comply with. Here’s just a short list for our winery:

Qualify to be a bonded winery with TTB.

Qualify to be a winery with the California ABC.

Meet the zoning requirements imposed by Solano County.

Meet the building requirements imposed by Solano County.

Meet the septic requirements imposed by Solano County, as well as the state of California.

Each one of these requirements involves passing muster. I have not talked to anyone anywhere who feels like what we are doing is going to end up requiring much in the way of any physical changes to our premises. It’s just all paper.

And each requirement, standing alone, doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. It’s just all these reasonable requirements in combination results in an almost insurmountable gamut. There is no one lethal stroke—it is just death by 1000 small cuts.

I don’t know where this all ends. I do know that if we, as a nation want small business to survive and thrive, this plethora of regulations are making this almost impossible.

I think this also has to have a huge effect on the corporatization of America. As burdensome as these regulations are, at least a large corporation has the means to surmount them. I am not saying it is easy for them either, but at least they have the resources and the staying power that most small businesses lack.

I am quite sure that most Republicans would agree with me on the above. Most Democrats should agree with me as well. No matter what your politics, a vibrant economy with lots of small businesses is in everybody’s interest. I am quite sure that once we are up and going with our winery, we will not make a huge impact on the economy of the nation, or even the state, or even Solano County. But we will generate a certain amount of income, probably need to hire a few people, contribute sales taxes, and so on and so forth. And while I won’t pretend that our a little enterprise is going to make that much difference, combined with other small businesses of similar size we could be making a huge difference to the economy. This is particularly true in an economy where the large businesses are becoming so automated that they are not generating much in the way of jobs.

So that’s my rant. Hopefully with another few weeks I will have my entitlements in hand, and I’ll have calmed down some.

Rules for the Big Guys

Monday, August 12th, 2013

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I would highly recommend. But one part of the book caught my particular attention.

One small food processor started up a small meat processing factory (at least it sounds better than “slaughterhouse”). But he ran into all kinds of problems with the USDA. It required that there be a lavatory for its inspectors, something that if you’re processing a gazillion animals isn’t a big deal, but for a small outfit is a real burden. Finally the USDA determined he wasn’t doing enough processing to justify their sending an inspector, which for all intents and purposes shut him down.

This is the sort to thing that small producers in all fields (think wine for example) have to deal with. We’re trying to start up our winery / tasting room, and the biggest problem is all kinds of rules that make eminently good sense (or at least some amount of sense even if not exactly eminent) for a large producer. But for the small producer they make little or no sense. And they erect significant barriers to entry into the marketplace (which may be part of the reasoning behind these rules, though I think it more often is just bureaucratic inertia). One thing I’ve discovered is that if you just keep pushing, you can usually reach a resolution that, even if not perfect, at least you can live with.

A case in point: septic. Apparently, the waste from wine production is much stronger (higher BOD whatever that is) than normal waste. So the usual rules mandate some special processing.

Processing = $. In our case, it looked like we might need to install a whole separate septic tank at a cost of thousands of dollars.

If you’re Gallo, these rules probably make sense. But when you’re Artisan Family of Wines, they make no sense at all.

Our wastewater production can be generously described as miniscule. We will need to wash down the equipment we use for crush and then press. We’ll need to do some moderate cleaning now and then. Our annual wastewater production will probably be in the tens of gallons.

But the rules aren’t written with Artisan Family of Wines in mind. They’re written with Gallo in mind.

The story looks like it’s going to have a happy ending. If you can actually talk to someone and have a reasonable conversation, amazing things happen. In our case, someone realized that our minimal usage just didn’t jive with what the rules require. So we’ll probably get a waiver. We don’t know that absolutely for sure, but that is how it’s looking, at least as of when I’m writing this post.

I remember talking to someone maybe 15 years ago whose business was running Chicken Wing restaurants. He’d been doing it for several decades. And what he said has always stuck with me. When he started out, it was relatively easy to start a restaurant. You got your equipment, ordered your chicken wings, and you were good to go. But over time, it became harder and harder to open a business. Each new requirement, seemingly reasonable in and of itself, in combination created a morass that the small business person could overcome only with great difficulty, if at all. And I’m sure that in the 15 years since then things haven’t gotten any better, and have probably gotten a whole lot worse.

I don’t’ know what the solution is. It seems that there should be some consideration to making things a little easier for the smaller business which, because of its size, doesn’t present the same risks that a larger business does. A winery that generates tens of thousands of gallons of waste obviously needs to be required to do whatever is necessary to protect the environment. But the small business, whose impact is minimal, should be able to go through the process without having to fight at every step of the way just to get reason to prevail.

We’ve been at this process now for going on a year, and it does seem like we’re finally getting to the endgame, though even that I can’t say for sure. But I can say that as we (hopefully) approach the finish line, I hope I don’t crash from exhaustion. It’s a mind-numbing and bewildering process.