Vintners, county poised to toast new winery rules

Proposed ordinance would set firm guidelines

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

Washington’s wine industry

350: Vineyards in the state.

156,000 tons:

Washington’s wine grape production in 2009.

More than $3 billion:

Amount the state estimates that the wine industry generates per year for the economy.

10: Wineries in Clark County.

Wineries are charming places to go and sip from a glass of red or white, maybe quiz the winemaker about subtle flavors of a favorite vintage or the history of the land.

That’s what Michele Bloomquist had in mind when she decided to open a tasting room at her small Heisson farm.

She didn’t envision the questions she’d get from Clark County officials, who by last year had been hearing more about farmers interested in making wine. Officials, who receive copies of applications filed for state liquor licenses, had endless questions about locally made wines, but not about flavors and aromas.

They were thinking permits and zoning: Was this a commercial use of agriculture land? Retail? Is food being served? Does the health department know about this tasting room? What about the fire marshal? How many customers are going to come, and are neighbors going to be calling the county to complain about noise and traffic?

Now the questions have been resolved.

After months of working with vintners, Clark County commissioners approved an interim winery ordinance May 4. The commissioners will have a public hearing June 29 before adopting a final ordinance, which defines a winery and sets guidelines on details such as retail sales, parking and permitted events.

The new ordinance comes while commissioners are simplifying the development code to encourage new businesses and make it easier for existing businesses to expand. Commissioners Marc Boldt, Tom Mielke and Steve Stuart have been particularly enthused over the winery ordinance.

“This is something that could attract people to our region and be a signature for our region,” Stuart said. “There’s no reason we can’t be the next Walla Walla. There’s no reason we can’t be the next Willamette Valley.”

Washington, the second-leading state in wine production behind California, has 350 vineyards and 600-some wineries. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington’s wine grape production in 2009 totaled 156,000 tons, up 8 percent from 2008. Chardonnay, white riesling, cabernet sauvignon and merlot were the top four varieties.

The state estimates that the wine industry generates more than $3 billion a year for the state economy.

Locally, officials are hearing from farmers such as Bloomquist, who has a self-described “bootstrap” operation.

She has planted 1 acre of grapes on 4½ acres she bought in 2002. Her home was built by homesteader Alexander Heisen (whose name was later misspelled in government records, resulting in the name “Heisson” for an area northeast of Battle Ground.)

Bloomquist, a 39-year-old freelance writer, wanted to share her historic property with the public. She was considering a lavender farm until a friend suggested they make hard cider from the bounty produced from her apple orchard.

She was fascinated by the process and began taking winemaking classes. Her first two plantings failed, but she’s been working with a winemaker in Walla Walla and now she’s hoping to have her tasting room (in what was once a milking parlor) open by Memorial Day weekend. That’s one of a few times a year local wineries encourage people to do a county wine-tasting tour.

Bloomquist bought a used one-ton press and fermenting vessels from a vineyard that was expanding and needed new equipment.

She initially plans on offering two reds and two whites and pricing bottles between $12 and $22.

She’s received her federal license and expects to have her state license soon for the Heisen House Winery, which she’s spelling in honor of the homesteaders.

“Their name has been misspelled long enough,” she said.

Reducing start-up costs

When Bloomquist first approached the county, it was a buzz kill. She was told she’d have to spend thousands of dollars for site review plans and impact studies.

Marty Snell, director of the county’s Department of Community Development, said wineries were falling through the cracks of county code. Viewed as commercial and retail operations, they were seen as no different from a shopping complex.

An application now costs $228.

Jeremy Brown, who opened Battle Ground’s Rusty Grape Vineyard in 2006 and hosts weekend events, said he had been frustrated trying to figure out which permits he needed. Since there were no rules specific to wineries, he would receive conflicting information from county employees. Brown said once Snell and Commissioner Stuart got involved in the issue last year, the process of drafting the ordinance went smoothly.

“The ordinance gives the regulatory people something to follow so you’re not constantly getting a different story,” Brown said. He will have to make modifications to meet health and building codes, such as adding a commercial dishwasher and fixing his barn.

“Ultimately, it’s still going to cost money, but they did reduce it quite a bit,” Brown said.

‘Wonderful cultural component’

Both Brown and Bloomquist said county officials had to be educated that winemakers in Clark County don’t have deep pockets and their vineyards aren’t multimillion-dollar operations like the ones in Napa Valley.

County officials got the point, and now are hoping to capitalize on wineries.

“Wineries don’t necessarily have to be thousands of acres like they are in California,” said Kelly Sills, the county’s economic development manager. “They are tremendous generators of tourism, like the wineries that have populated the Willamette Valley. We certainly have the same potential to get there, and it adds a wonderful cultural component to the fabric of your community.”

The largest winery in Clark County, Bethany Vineyard, opened in 2003 on 80 acres in Ridgefield.

Owner Walt Houser, who has 25 acres of grapes and a second vineyard in Dallesport in Klickitat County, said he had a successful Mother’s Day weekend, with a steady stream of customers including many driving cars with Oregon license plates.

The new ordinance means he’ll have inspections from the health department and the fire marshal’s office, but he is OK with that. He likes that the ordinance sets minimums — 20 percent of crop land must be devoted to wine grapes, for example — and gives owners guidelines. Outdoor events are limited to 24 a year. Events must end no later than one hour after sunset.

“When we had events before we didn’t know if it was OK to have this many people or that many people, or how late noise could go,” Houser said. “And now we know.”

When Houser opened seven years ago, he relied on what a county official told him, which was that as long as the vineyard was a family operation, he could have a tasting room no larger than 300 square feet. That guideline had been around since 1971, when Lincoln and Joan Wolverton opened the county’s first winery, Salishan Vineyards, in La Center.

When Salishan closed in 2006, it was one of three vineyards in Clark County, along with Bethany and English Estate Winery.

Carl English said his winery in east Vancouver sits within city limits so the county ordinance does not apply.

Dan Andersen, who opened a tasting room at Three Brothers Vineyard & Winery in Ridgefield in 2007, recently won a silver medal at the West Coast Wine Competition in Sonoma, Calif., for his 2007 syrah.

Andersen said vintners have grown closer through the ordinance-writing process and want to promote each other to get more tourists, as well as residents, to give Clark County wine a try.

Bloomquist will have the county’s 10th winery; at least one farmer has an application pending.

People from Clark County are driving elsewhere to go wine tasting, Andersen said, “when quality wines are made right here.”

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.