Our Winery/tasting room: an update

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

jeff-smAs many of you probably know, we’ve been trying to get licensed to operate a winery and tasting room in Suisun Valley. We finally got our applications in several months ago. At that time, I hoped that everything would go through smoothly, though I had my doubts.

Well, the doubts won. This has turned into a continuing nightmare of bureaucratic red tape.

It’s hard to put into words how frustrating this is. I truly think that if all I had to deal with was the physical process of getting a winery and tasting room up and going, it would take some number of weeks. But I’ve been at this well over six months now, with no end in sight.

Just to give you some general idea of what we have to deal with, consider the prospect of having to remodel a house. This in fact is something that I have some familiar familiarity with. You figure out what you need to get permits for, go down, make your application, and hopefully get your permits in fairly short order. Sometimes it happens that way, but more often it does not. Of the myriad items that go into your remodeling, it’s almost inevitable that a few of them raise some question that needs to be resolved, usually requiring that you modify your application.

But now imagine that every time you remodel the house, you have to go to not one but five or six different entities in order to get the approvals you need. Well, welcome to the wine business.

You have federal, state, and local jurisdictions to contend with. It is almost certainly going to be the case that with all of them they are underfunded, and they are all trying to deal with way more than they can reasonably handle. So nothing gets done quickly.

Did I say that you have federal, state, and local jurisdictions to contend with? Well, that, unfortunately, is a gross oversimplification. If you just look at the “local” part of the task, you realize that that does not mean dealing with just one department, but several. Right now, I am having to deal with planning, building inspection, and environmental. Each has their own set of requirements, and, as I am finding, the requirements imposed by one of these entities greatly complicates the application when it comes to dealing with another.

Just to give you an example (one that I’m actually struggling through at the moment), Building requires that if there is what they consider to be a manufacturing facility and a nonmanufacturing facility in the same building, there has to be a firewall between the two of them. A winery is considered manufacturing, while a tasting room is not. Firewalls are very expensive. I thought I had a very simple solution to this, which would be to simply do all of the wine processing outside the building. Building inspection was fine with this, and I thought, “problem solved”.

Only, as it turns out, planning considers that their requirement that there be a winery “on the property” means not just that it needs to be someplace on the property, indoors or out, but it that it needs to be inside the building. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the ordinance that they rely upon, and to interpret it is requiring that the wine processing be done indoors is a real stretch.

So there’s a procedure to request an interpretation of the ordinance, which I have done. It’s basically involves sending in a letter to someone who I’ve never met outlining why the interpretation that the wine processing needs to be indoors is wrong. So I spent a whole bunch of time gathering dictionary definitions, and legal ones, of the language in the ordinance. I went all around Suisun Valley taking pictures of wineries and their outdoor processing. So I sent this all in about a week ago, and I’m still awaiting the verdict.

Apropos to this subject was our application to the TTB for our bonded winery. We submitted our application and got back a response that was generally positive, except that it stated that all wine storage needed to be indoors. The compliance person who is processing our application was dumbfounded, particularly since most wineries do most of their wine processing outside. However, a quick call to the TTB processor resolved this issue in just a few minutes. Apparently, as long as you put a lock on your storage tank, the TTB is good with outside storage. So at least that’s one problem solved.

Then we heard back from the state. Our application looks great, but they don’t want to finally approve it and tell our facility is “furnished”. Of course, it’s a little difficult to “furnish” the facility when, because of the planning issue, we don’t know what it’s going to end up looking like. So I guess we aren’t going to get our state approval until we get our planning approval and God knows how long that’s going to take.

I just don’t now know how anyone in the wine business gets anything done. I guess if you’re Gallo, and have compliance people up the kazoo, this is just business as usual. If you’re some tiny little winery just trying to survive in a hostile environment, all this red tape is simply overwhelming.

At any rate, I’ll keep you posted, hopefully with the announcement of our successful conclusion to all of these problems. Stay tuned.

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2 Responses to “Our Winery/tasting room: an update”

  1. Lee says:

    I’m convinced all this red tape, is designed primarily to keep small businesses (and vintners) from competing with the big boys, by raising the initial barriers so high.

  2. Dave pechan says:

    It took us 18 months in 97-98 to get our approval, that is why i have sought expansion. Why bother, this is killing jobs and nobody cares. Good luck

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