A 30-Year-Old Decree Makes Napa Winery Weddings Nearly Impossible

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People are frequently shocked to discover that of the hundreds of Napa Valley wineries, just five are allowed to hold weddings on-site. The five, Beringer Vineyards, Merryvale Vineyards, V. Sattui Winery, Charles Krug Winery and Brasswood Estate, all in St. Helena, were grandfathered in to what some call an antiquated rule that regulates winery events.

In 1989, the Napa County Board of Supervisors passed a Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO), which classified wineries as agricultural processing facilities. Why this means that wineries can’t host weddings is rooted in Napa’s past.

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From the 1920s to the ’60s, factors like Prohibition, vineyard-infesting aphids and bigger moneymaker crops limited wine production and availability in Napa. As a result, housing and other businesses began to expand onto agricultural land.

By 1968, the loss of farmland had become so significant that the state floated an idea to run a major highway through the valley. Nearby regions had already faced a similar issue. Santa Clara Valley, for example, lost more than 60,000 acres of agricultural land from the 1930s to 1970s. So, the Napa board created the country’s first agricultural preserve to protect the farmlands and ensure agricultural use.

People are frequently shocked to discover that of the hundreds of Napa Valley wineries, just five are allowed to hold weddings on-site.

As more wineries opened in Napa over the next 20 years, the board aimed to ensure such expansion didn’t compromise the area’s agricultural integrity. Enter the WDO, which defines wineries and limits the business can be conducted on their grounds.

As agricultural processing facilities, wineries can produce, market and sell wines, as well as host wine-related educational activities. Weddings, as events that are not based in agriculture, don’t qualify.

Wineries that played host to weddings before the decree were exempt from the rule. The ordinance is controversial among members of the wine and wedding industries.

“Many of the guidelines of the WDO are antiquated and prohibit economic stimulus, especially in regard to weddings and social events,” says Madeleine Reid, the director of events and hospitality at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, California. “Most wineries are able to host wine education events, which are lunches or dinners with an educational component [like a tour or wine-paired meal] and have similar guidelines to wineries who are able to host weddings.

“The same standards and rules that apply to one type of event should apply to all events. And all types of events should be allowed at every winery, if the guidelines are followed.”

Domaine Carneros, Napa, California
Domaine Carneros, Napa, California / Photo courtesy Domaine Carneros

A local photographer, Dona Kopol Bonick, agrees.

“As a whole, I think the regulations are unwarranted, unnecessary and detrimental to winery operations,” says Bonick, who argues that weddings and marketing events are similar. “A wedding can be the ultimate marketing event as people come from all parts…of the world and many times have never had the experience of visiting a winery.”

Some agree with the regulations, though. Adrienne D.A. Smith, general manager for Parallel Napa Valley, which hosts its weddings at Brasswood Estate, says that Napa is a small place, “just two roads going north to south.”

If everyone could have weddings there, Smith says, the area would be overwhelmed with traffic.

Others say that weddings might not be a good business model for wineries, as the industry and its audience has changed.

“Our permit is for a winery, not a wedding location,” says Eileen Crane, CEO of Domaine Carneros, which is not allowed to have weddings. “There were fewer wineries and fewer guests that came to wine country [in 1989]. It was a much smaller world. It was easier to block off a Saturday afternoon for a wedding. Now, for wineries that receive guests on a regular basis, it would be off-putting or difficult.

“If the county said you could have weddings now, I don’t think we would.”

Published on November 27, 2020
Topics: Napa