Ken and Aiko Freeman are proud of their elegant winery on Montgomery Road above Sebastopol, and their rare cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They’d like to be able to invite people to the winery to visit and taste their wine. So they’ve asked the County for permission to have wine tastings and charitable and trade events with up to 100 guests at each event.
A neighbor who lives 90 feet from where the events would take place has protested, and Freeman is now offering to scale back the number of events and the number of people at each event by about 50 percent.
“We’re a small, family-owned winery. My wife is the wine maker. We want to have small groups of guests to taste our wine,” Ken Freeman said.
But that doesn’t address the other worrisome issue — traffic on the narrow county road that serves the winery, and the potential for people to be driving and drunk, said Dennis Rosatti, the executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, which is working with the neighbor.
“We’re not trying to put farmers out of business, but it’s the wrong location,” Rosatti said. “It’s on a rural County road, it’s people who are driving and drinking, it’s people looking at maps while they’re trying to drive. It’s a safety issue.”
Rosatti also is concerned that the growing number of wineries and vineyards is changing the very nature of West County.
“The bigger picture is: do we want the hills of Sebastopol to become the next Alexander Valley? Why is no one talking about the cumulative impacts these developments will have on the existing condition and quality of life for the people living here?” he asked.
There are approximately 34 wineries in West County, according to the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau website. Countywide, there are 700 wineries, about 450 of which are open to the public, according to the Sonoma County Vintners Association.
There are a total 64,000 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County, according to the 2013 crop report by the County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. They represent 6 percent of the county’s land area, and contribute $13.4 billion annually to the county’s $20 billion local economy, according to the Vintners Association.
Freeman Vineyard and Winery was established in 2001 and includes a 3.4-acre winery, eight hillside acres adjoining the winery, and the 14-acre Freeman Ranch to the west. The Freemans have three employees and contract out the farming, Freeman said. Their wines sell in the $40- to $45- bottle range, he said.
In 2003, the county granted the Freemans’ request to increase annual production from 2,000 cases to 6,000 cases and to construct a 5,000-square-foot wine cave.
In 2013, the Freemans asked for approval to add wine tasting, including barrel tasting, by appointment only; 12 agricultural promotional events and four industry-wide events annually, with a maximum of 100 people per event; and to expand the hours of operation during harvest and bottling to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Currently, the hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
At a hearing on April 3, the county Board of Zoning Adjustments reviewed the proposal and asked for additional studies, including a revised sound study that reflects the distance to the nearest homes and suggests ways to reduce noise impacts on those homes, and a traffic study that analyzes roadway safety in light of the number of vehicle trips that would be generated by the events.
The Freemans were also asked to respond to a consultant’s report analyzing their Negative Declaration (a type of environmental report.) The report by Trans Tech said, among other things, that the winery’s septic system was too small to handle the proposed number of visitors; that an additional 45 parking spaces were needed; and that driveways would have to be widened so fire engines could get to the winery in case of an emergency.
The Freemans now propose scaling back to 12 annual events from 16, and to 50 people per event from 100. Invitations for tasting events would be limited to eight days a year, Freeman said.
The Board of Zoning Adjustments will schedule a rehearing when the Freemans complete the requested studies.