Big winery category drawing fire

The Mercury News
August 26, 2008

Big winery category drawing fire

Ridge-top vintner seeks ‘Scenic’ designation, more acreage, but others object

by Lisa Krieger

T.J. Rodgers is an outsize personality with an outsize dream to produce the best pinot noir in the world — at an outsize winery.

But first he needs to convince authorities that his plan is not just big, but beautiful.

Rodgers, founder and chief executive of San Jose-based Cypress Semiconductor, sees his plan as the future of fine wine-making along Skyline Drive, where grapes bask in what growers call “refrigerated sunshine.”

But it is triggering a supersize protest from small-is-beautiful environmentalists and some neighbors, who want greater regulation of wineries in steep, fragile and pristine landscapes. By rezoning about 17,000 acres in the county, the amendment could contribute to future erosion, traffic, groundwater consumption and loss of habitat, they fear.

They say he has chutzpah to “greenwash” the zoning change, dressing it up in lovely language.

“The term &#!45;scenic winery’ is an oxymoron,” said Lennie Roberts of the Committee for Green Foothills. &#!47;To us, ‘scenic’ is natural terrain, not an altered terrain. It’s a natural view of a forest, open hillside, creek, sweeping view of the ocean. Not a building for industrial use.&#!48;

Historically, San Mateo County’s fanciest exports were strawberries and artichokes. Home to only three wineries, the county set its current winemaking limit in 1977 to accommodate the modest Obester Winery near Half Moon Bay, since renamed LaNebbia Winery, which produces under 2,000 cases a year.

Rodgers contends that the current limit is outdated, and that his project is a fraction of the size of giant Napa and Sonoma wineries. He’s already growing grapes at the vineyard, and has excavated three large caves where they’d be processed. But he has to truck them off-site for processing. Before he can work at Clos de la Tech, he needs a permit.

He proposes a category called &#!47;scenic wineries&#!48; &#!51; any winery located 1,500 feet or more above sea level would be allowed to bottle 13,000 cases a year, up from the current limit of 2,500 cases.

“In essence, there would be two different categories of wineries,” said Mike Schaller of the county’s planning department.

If approved, his winery could vinify 150 tons of grapes annually.

Aspiring to challenge the French wines that have dominated the pinot noir world since the 13th century, Rodgers and his partners have developed a vineyard that boasts some of the steepest slopes in California, using an ancient Burgundian recipe as well as the latest high-tech wizardry available.

The proposed project would include new living quarters, offices, an employee break room, a bunk and service building and wine composting facilities.

The next public hearing on the project will be Wednesday, with another planned in September.

Rodgers and his attorney Doug Aikins argue that changing times demand an expansion of the rules. “The wine industry has changed,” said Aikins. Boosting production — a bottle of Domaine du Docteur Rodgers 2000, decorated with a 16 megabit computer chip, sells for over $100 — makes the project more financially practical.

And besides, scenic winery is an apt description of Clos de la Tech, Aikins said.

“What’s scenic is the view from the wineries,” said Aikins. “It is a beautiful location. We wanted to capture the scenic quality of the natural terrain.”

In fact, they say the new category could attract more elite wineries to this sky-high appellation.

“Skyline might gain cachet as a tourist destination,” Aikins said. However, the public isn’t expected at Clos de la Tech — they don’t plan to offer a public tasting room.

Opposition is fermenting.

Environmentalists and neighbors in the small nearby hamlet of La Honda are frustrated that San Mateo County doesn’t have any regulations that are specific to vineyards; rather, ridgetop grapes are treated the same as crops grown on gentler and more stable terrain. Napa and Sonoma, they note, ban vineyards on hillsides with slopes greater than 50 percent.

And they say they’re not fooled by phrasing.

“Scenic for who? Maybe it is scenic for the owners who can look down from their domain onto everybody,” said La Honda resident Toby McLeod. “It’s not very scenic for La Honda. We’ve been looking at gaping holes in the ridge for five years.”

“The term ‘scenic winery’ is coined as a PR move,” scoffed Dave Schorr of La Honda. “It was written specifically so he could request an increase in his case limit.”

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