Change in Napa Valley Restores Hope for Small Family Farms

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When people think of the Napa Valley, they often think of the big, the grand, the luxurious and the over-the-top. But there remain small family farms in the famous region, and this past March, they finally got a lifeline.

After four years of effort, the Micro-Winery Ordinance was unanimously passed, paving a way for very small farms to sell estate-grown wines directly to consumers.¬†The Micro-Winery Ordinance does not apply to parcels that are less than 10 acres in size, however, and a Micro-Winery¬†must also have a production facility on-site. The Micro-Winery Ordinance is 100% compliant with Napa County’s Winery Definition¬†Ordinance. The Micro-Winery Ordinance allows qualifying¬†parcels, who wish¬†to produce less than 5,000 gallons of wine, the ability to pursue a streamlined¬†application process¬†through Napa County. This will save applicants time and money as they move through the existing¬†winery use permit process.¬†

‚ÄúThe Micro-Winery Ordinance will change the Napa Valley as we know it,‚ÄĚ says Elise Nerlove. Nerlove is a second generation grapegrower and owner of Elkhorn Peak Cellars, which farms an eight-acre vineyard in south Napa and makes about 800 cases a year.

A group of 25 small producers, including Hoopes Vineyard, Chaix Wines and Hill Family Estate, banded together as a nonprofit called Save the Family Farms to push the effort through. Elkhorn Peak hopes to be Napa Valley’s first micro winery.

‚ÄúNapa Valley has been very successful, but we are losing small family farms in the name of premiumization,‚ÄĚ says Nerlove. ‚ÄúNearly 200 small, family-owned vineyards have closed or been sold over the past five years. And when the small family farm is gone forever, the soul of Napa Valley will be gone, too.‚ÄĚ

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A traditional winery use permit costs $5 million on average, intended for wineries producing 10,000‚Äď20,000 gallons of wine a year. Conversely, the micro-winery permit is designed for farms with annual wine production between 201 and 5,000 gallons per year from estate vineyards, with visitation capped at 10 round trips a day by both staff and customers. Structures on the property must total no more than 5,000 square feet in size.

Without such a permit, smaller farms have been hard-pressed to stay in business, barred legally from doing tastings or selling wine from their locations. If they can‚Äôt make a living, they eventually have to face the probability of selling their land to a bigger producer, developer or landholder, which inevitably lessens Napa Valley‚Äôs diversity and history‚ÄĒnever a good goal.

‚ÄúNapa can and should be a place where $10 million estates with marble pillars can coexist with a small family farm who wants to offer intimate wine tastings at a picnic table in the vineyards,‚ÄĚ says Nerlove.

Maybe now it will.

Published on June 28, 2022
Topics: Napa Valley