Placer wineries, neighbors differ on noise and traffic levels

Pat Wegner pours wine at Pescatore Vineyards, one of many wineries in Placer County.
Pat Wegner pours wine at Pescatore Vineyards, one of many wineries in Placer County. lsterling@sacbee.com

Placer County officials are looking to clamp down on its burgeoning wine industry following complaints by residents over noise and traffic.

In the last decade, several new wineries have opened up, with vintners spending millions of dollars on tasting rooms that have become regional attractions. But the newfound popularity and growth has come at the expense of neighbors, who often put up with rowdy parties, loud wedding music and large tour buses.

“If you want to get out when the tour bus is on the road, you’re in for a treat,” said Michael Giles, who lives on a 4.6-acre property off Welcome Lane in Newcastle, near the Pescatore Vineyard and Winery.

The Placer County Planning Commission is considering limits on any for-profit event with more than 20 people, wine tastings exempted. The restriction would allow wineries to have only six such events per year.

A six-per-year limit is already in place under a 2008 ordinance, but some residents believe that ordinance is too vague because it does not adequately define the types of events the county sought to limit. That loophole, along with a complaint-driven code enforcement system, has allowed wineries to have more parties and weddings than residents believe the county intended.

Winery owners are pushing the county to move in the opposite direction, noting that private events – weddings, fundraisers, parties, dinners – are essential to their bottom line. The wine industry brings tourism and tax dollars to the county, the owners argue.

“The vast majority of vintners in Placer County have a secondary occupation ... because it’s just not lucrative enough with the restrictions in place to make a living,” said Donald DuPont, owner of Rock Hill Winery just outside Loomis and president of the Placer County Vintners Association.

He added, “Until you’re able to make a living, the (winery) business will not become significant.”

DuPont, 62, lived in Sonoma County and worked for several wineries before moving to Placer County five years ago to start his own. He has a 6,000-square-foot building for wine tastings on his 14-acre property.

Modeled on the estates of Napa, the tasting building sits at the bottom of a hill, features an open bar and an outdoor amphitheater. Ultimately, DuPont plans to host dozens of events and thousands of people. He has spent $3 million on the winery.

“We’re already licensed by the state and federal governments,” DuPont said. “But the county wants to step in and further regulate us. Why should they get involved?”

Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Joshua Huntsinger described the debate as a “tug of war” between wineries and neighbors.

“The county is trying to strike a balance to make wineries accessible while protecting the rural lifestyle,” he said.

Huntsinger, who has been tasked as the liaison between the wineries and planning department, said there is real value in wineries hosting events.

“Significant sales of wine products happen based on the traffic of warm bodies through the wineries,” he said.

Historic records show the Placer foothills were dotted with several thousand acres of wine grapes before Prohibition in 1920. But today, the region lags behind leading wine-producing counties in California, including Napa, Sonoma, San Luis Obispo and El Dorado.

In 2013, growers in Placer County planted 211 acres of wine grapes while neighboring El Dorado County had 2,500 acres, according to Huntsinger.

Giles, the Newcastle resident, said Placer wineries have proved a nightmare for him. Several years ago, a wedding at Pescatore Winery, just 500 feet away, prevented him from watching “Star Wars” with his son, he said.

“‘Star Wars’ isn’t a quiet movie,” Giles said this month during an interview at his two-story countryside home.

Pescatore owner Dave Wegner acknowledged hosting the wedding as a favor for a family friend and asked that only 70 people attend.

“Well, that isn’t what happened,” Wegner said. “People kept showing up. During a 30-minute period, we had cars backed up on my access road.”

Today, Wegner no longer hosts weddings because they require too much time and preparation. Instead, his niche lies in organizing wine and food pairings for smaller groups.

Wegner isn’t opposed to regulations for wineries.

Vintners “have a passion for making wine. They have all these visions of a vineyard and selling wine. But they don’t understand the business side.”

Placer County is in the process of conducting workshops and collecting public opinion. No complaints against wineries have been filed in the past year, according to county spokesman Mike Fitch.

Giles said that’s partly because many have given up the fight. Most complaints are never investigated, he said, because the county is understaffed.

The county recently hired a third code enforcement officer for after-hours complaints, according to Michael Johnson, director of the Placer County Community Development/Resource Agency.

He noted that any changes to the winery ordinance are still several months out. The Planning Commission will make a final recommendation for the Board of Supervisors to consider.

Supervisor Jim Holmes, who represents Loomis, Newcastle, North Auburn and most of Rocklin, supports giving wineries more leeway to host events. He believes the rules could be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the location of the winery and the desires of neighbors.

“I just want (wineries) to be successful,” the supervisor said. “It’s a great boon for agriculture and brings in tourists.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.