Wine tasting is a crucial part of business for many wineries here in Northern California and points south. Local hospitality and other businesses also depend on the influx of tourists who make winery visits a part of their stay. Over 30 years ago, however, Napa County restricted the ability to provide wine tasting and tours to curtail the throngs of tourists traveling to the area.
Last month, three Napa wineries filed a federal lawsuit against the county, claiming it was “violating their civil rights.” They asserted that they had permits that allowed these activities, including the ability to serve wine, before the county changed the law. The owner of one vineyard involved in the lawsuit says the county is “taking away substantial property rights that we have invested in for decades.” She also accused the county of engaging in a “pattern and practice of discriminating against specific classes of landowners and small business owners.”
The California State Controller has questions for Napa County
Now California State Controller Malia Cohen has weighed in on the dispute in a public letter to the supervisor of Napa County. She asked “how a winery that has been paying taxes on wine poured at their property for 40 years was only recently found to have been illegally serving wine…..I am also concerned as to how they were able to secure a permit to sell alcohol if local land use regulations purportedly did not permit such activity.”
Ms. Cohen noted that only one of two scenarios is possible. The wineries “have been operating in error for nearly half a century,” which would require “changes at the local and state level to prevent this problem from repeating itself,” or “the government is violating these wineries’ constitutional rights as they allege….”
The case, which is set to get underway early in the new year, is just one example of the challenges that wineries, particularly smaller ones, face from government entities – especially those at the local and state levels. These small business owners must be able to protect and assert their rights. Having legal guidance from professionals with experience in this unique industry is crucial to those efforts.