It's no secret that the plan by Michael Larner and his family to open a tasting room and hold special events on their Ballard Canyon Road property has fueled existing controversy between the county's wine industry and the property residents who fear their bucolic roadways will degenerate into speedways full of drunken drivers.
Larner, who with his family owns 134 acres at 955 Ballard Canyon Rd., applied in April 2010 to develop a winery, remodel an existing structure into a small tasting room, and host special events amid the 34-acre vineyard. All facets of this family's project follow the guidelines listed in the current winery ordinance for a Tier 2 winery, Larner noted. The ordinance was adopted by the County Board of Supervisors in 2004.
Controversy is inevitable when those who favor progress and business expansion come up against others who prefer the status quo. And that is exactly what some residents of Ballard Canyon Road and the surrounding rural areas don't like about the Larner project: It equals change.
Several of Michael Larner's opponents have emphasized to me that their biggest concern is not the winery project itself, but the fact that Larner wants to host several special events that would feature his estate wines. His opponents fear that narrow, winding Ballard Canyon Road will not be able to handle increased traffic from attendees at such events, and that guests will be over the legal alcohol limit when they drive away from his property.
Following two hearings during which Larner's opponents voiced their dismay about his proposal, county Zoning Administrator Jeff Hunt Dec. 5 effectively derailed the project by ordering the family to submit an environmental impact report (EIR) for its proposal.
Larner told me he wishes Hunt had taken into account the Larner family's "willingness to utilize shuttles for all events to address the neighbors' concerns" about increased traffic on Ballard Canyon Road, as well as the possibility of motorists driving while impaired.
Last week, Larner said his family plans to "resubmit our project to the zoning administrator, removing all but six events at 80 people or less (each)." But the family will continue its desire for an on-site tasting room, he noted, because "the preservation of our future tasting room is the single most important aspect of our project, and we will fight for this as long as it takes!"
I'd like to address the concerns of some valley residents who believe the Santa Barbara County wine industry — and projects such as the Larner's — will turn our area into "another Napa."
In particular, I want to refute some unbalanced claims made by columnist Pat Murphy in the Santa Ynez Valley News on Dec. 22.
As an aside, and to be fair to Murphy, what she wrote was clearly marked as a column, in which she is entitled to her opinion, just as I am here, posting under "commentary" on a blog that is mine alone. For example, my "Wine Country" column published in the Santa Maria Times and Lompoc Record is just that — a column — and it affords me the chance to share my opinion.
News reporters, however, are not entitled to let their opinions seep into stories. A fair, balanced news story presents both sides and does not include the author's opinion.
In her column, Murphy noted that "the time has arrived for individuals with over-inflated ideas of finding wealth in the wine business to get cranial lap-bands. They need to reduce their unrealistic ideas for a business that is starting to flounder here."
I can say with certainty that the winemakers with whom I am acquainted did not enter the wine industry to "find wealth." They work long hours to support themselves and their families by making wine, and, while there are exceptions, most I know turned a passion for good wine into a job, and didn't fund their company with millions of dollars.
Murphy continued: " … for a business that is starting to flounder here." My response: Show me proof.
If the wine business in Santa Barbara County was floundering, why would the Lompoc Wine Ghetto now have 16 tasting rooms when 18 months ago there were just six?
Additionally, a third wine bar has opened in Solvang, and scenic Foxen Canyon Road between Los Olivos and Santa Maria is lined with successful wineries located within world-renowned vineyards. Santa Barbara's "Funk Zone" contains more than 10 tasting rooms on the "Urban Wine Trail." The town of Los Olivos offers more than 25 opportunities for wine tasting.
Suffice to say, Santa Barbara County's wine industry is booming, and employs people who might otherwise be out of work.
In addition, the county's wine industry attracts thousands of visitors each year, and those tourists also pay for lodging, gas and restaurants. They shop for groceries and clothing, and visit our beaches and parks. As a whole, wineries and winemakers on the Central Coast sponsor festivals, winemaker dinners and events nearly every weekend all year long.
The second point I want to address is Murphy's claim that "permanent Valley residents are determined not to let this become another Napa, with all its uncomfortable and unhealthy side effects. Statistics for DUI convictions in Napa are astounding."
First, most winemakers in this county are also "permanent" Valley residents, just as you and I are, Pat. They live near us, their children attend local schools, they also pay taxes and spend what they earn here in our county.
But let's talk about the DUI statistics in Napa being "astounding."
To be honest, Napa's DUI statistics matter little here, as Santa Barbara County is not Napa County. This region has earned its own stars, and doesn't "survive" in Napa's shadow.
Murphy didn't provide her readers with any statistics for DUI arrests and accidents in Santa Barbara County, but I will. Following are statistics from the recent holiday season:
A Santa Maria Times story published during the first week of January noted that "the 'AVOID the 12' campaign arrested 154 people over the 17-day holiday period from Dec. 16 to Jan. 1 for driving under the influence in Santa Barbara County.
"There were 21 alcohol-related traffic collisions throughout the county, with four of those causing injury to at least one person, according to a release from AVOID the 12," the story noted.
"The New Year’s weekend resulted in 49 people arrested for suspicion of driving while impaired. DUI-related arrests by agency (over the 17 days) are California Highway Patrol/Santa Maria area, 10; California Highway Patrol/Buellton-Solvang area, 10; California Highway Patrol/Santa Barbara area, 44; Santa Barbara police, 32; Santa Maria police, 17; Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, 21; Lompoc police, 15; Guadalupe police, three; UCSB police, two.
How many of these arrests are directly related to the wine industry? There's no way to tell, unless one were to look up all the reports submitted by the respective law enforcement agencies,. I'd venture a guess, since the arrests occurred during the holiday season, that several were linked to companies' holiday events.
Larner said his family contacted the California Highway Patrol to obtain details about DUIs on Ballard Canyon Road during the past 10 years. The report, which I have seen, includes the substance in question, as well as age and residence of each arrestee. The data shows that 80 percent of the DUI arrests were alcohol-related incidents; 40 percent involved under-age drivers and 60 percent involved "valley locals," Larner said of the report.
Before I continue, let me make very clear my core belief: If you drink enough alcohol to force your blood alcohol content (BAC) above 0.08, and then attempt to drive a vehicle, motorcycle or water craft, you deserve to be stopped and arrested for driving over California's legal limit. Period.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) is the agency that licenses and monitors wineries that offer on-site tasting, as well as the off-site tasting rooms owned by wineries. In conjunction with local law enforcement agencies, the ABC offers classes for tasting room employees, teaching them vital pointers, among them the risk of serving under-age customers and how to determine if a guest has already consumed too much alcohol. Everything I'm sharing is easily accessible via http://www.abc.ca.gov.
Having poured tastes of wine for a handful of winemakers since 2007, I do have experience following the law as set forth by the ABC. But let me quote Katie O'Hara, partner at Bedford Winery in Los Alamos, who is more eloquent than I:
Speaking at the second Larner Project hearing Dec. 5, O'Hara said: "The (wine) industry as a whole is very, very responsible as far as overseeing guests" who visit the county's wineries and tasting rooms. "Servers are responsible," and the majority of guests "are coming in to taste, not to drink."
Jim Fiolek, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, also spoke during the hearing, emphasizing to Hunt that, "No winery will survive selling to customers who are inebriated."
That's because the fines are steep, and the consequences severe.
On its website, right off the bat, the ABC notes that the goal of its disciplinary procedures is to secure "voluntary compliance among licensees," and the consequences for non-compliance include administrative penalties.
Continuing: "Any person licensed by ABC, and his employees, must abide by all the laws of the State. If ABC has evidence of a violation involving a licensee or a licensed premises, it will file an administrative complaint, called an accusation. An accusation, if proven, will lead to the suspension or revocation of the license. An accusation is in addition to, and not a substitute for, possible criminal and civil penalties that local city and district attorneys may bring against the licensee or employee who committed the violation.
"Criminal penalties can result from violations that are criminal offenses. For example, the sale or service of alcoholic beverages to a minor or an obviously intoxicated person is not only grounds for an accusation, but constitutes a criminal offense. Thus, the seller/server could be arrested, charged with a crime, and face a fine, community service work or imprisonment in county jail."
We who work in the business of wine tasting take our service seriously. At Qupe, I "carded" visitors who appeared to me to be under age 21. Their reactions ranged from delight (especially when they were well over the legal age) to annoyance, but I didn't pour until I had proof each guest was of legal age.
The penalty for serving alcohol to a minor is "a minimum $1,000 fine and 24 hours of community service," according to the ABC. "If a person buys alcohol and furnishes it to a minor who consumes it and causes great bodily injury or death to himself or others, the furnisher faces a minimum 6-12 months in county jail and a $1,000 fine. (Sections 25658(a), 25658(c) and 25658(e)(2)(3))."
As the ABC notes, "every person who sells, furnishes, gives or causes to be sold, furnished or given away, any alcoholic beverages to any habitual drunkard, or to any obviously intoxicated person, is guilty of a misdemeanor. (Section 25602).
And that, folks, is the responsibility we bear when we pour you a taste of wine. The legal definition of a single taste of wine, the ABC notes, is one ounce.
Disclaimer: I, Laurie Jervis, editor of www.centralcoastwinepress.com, have worked in local tasting rooms. This commentary is my opinion, and in no way reflects on my news stories published about the Larner project for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com