Reporting from Napa, Calif.—More wedding bells could ring at Napa Valley wineries after a tough economic year that has some saying yes to a proposal to revise rules banning most vineyard vows.
Proponents say the plan would bring in some cash for struggling vintners and provide an opportunity to introduce guests to their wines.
The issue, expected to get its next public airing this week at a Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting, has the area buzzing.
"This is an important time, and it's an important time to set the ground rules for the future," said Andy Beckstoffer, a major grape grower who opposes the change.
The wedding ban stems from the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance, which forbids social or cultural events at most Napa County wineries except for a handful of places that were grandfathered.
The proposed changes would affect more than just weddings. Also up for discussion is the current requirement that new wineries hold tastings by appointment only as well as limits on corporate events.
Opponents say they're concerned that lifting the ban on social events could cause problems for the agricultural preserve that covers thousands of acres in the county and comes with zoning restrictions to protect farmland. Wineries are permitted as an agricultural use, and the Winery Definition Ordinance was written to ensure they conform to the rules, so amending the ordinance could conflict with the goal of preserving agriculture, Beckstoffer said.
Those on the other side agree that protecting the agricultural preserve is crucial and maintain that they've built safeguards into their proposal to do that. They propose a two-year trial and say traffic, safety and noise limit protocols would have to be followed. The number of weddings a winery would be allowed to host would be limited to the number of event permits it already has.
"No one is asking for unlimited events," said Stuart Smith, general partner of Smith-Madrone Winery and a supporter of the changes. "The argument against this -- that this is going to destroy Napa as we know it -- is just rubbish."
Smith said changes to the ordinance were long overdue. He sees opening the doors to weddings as community outreach to area residents who would like to see their children get married at a winery.
The move to revise the winery ordinance was set in motion by people in the hospitality industry who see business going to locales with less restrictive policies, such as next-door neighbor Sonoma County.
Last year was tough for the valley, said Clay Gregory, president of the Napa Valley Destination Council. Numbers are still being tallied, but it looks as though hotel occupancy rates will average less than 60%, compared with 80% in good years, he said.
The destination council is neutral on the ordinance revision, Gregory said. "It's a hot issue. There's no doubt about it," he said.
Beckstoffer sympathizes with vintners' need for revenue but said it's important to consider hotels and other venues that could lose wedding business to wineries.
He's not convinced weddings are a good way to market wine. "If your wedding is a wine marketing event, then you're marrying the wrong guy," he said with a chuckle.
This isn't the first trip down the aisle for the winery wedding idea. A similar proposal in 2005 failed to garner support.
This time, the Napa Valley Vintners association is trying to come up with a recommendation, but arriving at a consensus among its 375 member wineries isn't expected to be easy.
The question, said association spokesman Terry Hall, is, "How do you look at sustainability of your business as well as sustainability of your most valuable resources, which is your land and the agricultural preserve that protects it?"