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Planning commission works on new rules for Sonoma County winery events

The Avett Brothers perform during the Sonoma Harvest Music Festival at B.R. Cohn Winery, on Saturday, September 22, 2018. (Photo by Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday made some progress to finish new rules to regulate winery events that have triggered disputes between neighborhood activists and the wine industry over past years.

The panel revisited the draft that it initially considered last June, and again in February, in its quest to find a balance between rural neighbors who have complained about traffic and noise among wine tourists, against the local industry that contends the need for visitors.

But after five hours of debate, commissioners said they realized they had more work to do and would reconvene June 7 in attempt to finish the proposal. The Board of Supervisors is slated to take up the proposal on Sept. 27.

The rules would apply to only new and modified event applications. There are more than 460 winery permits in Sonoma County and roughly 60% have visitor components, such as tasting rooms, according to county staff.

The commissioners grappled with lingering thorny questions, most significantly over what exactly falls under a winery event as opposed to traditional business activities for a wine tasting?

The members wrestled over trying to set a definition of an “agricultural promotion event” that would be viewed more favorably as opposed to events like concerts. Those definitions would dictate the regulations on the timing on an event, the food service to be offered and other activities.

The five-hour debate at times veered over whether yoga outings and painting classes at wineries should fall under greater scrutiny as the local industry has lobbied against tight regulations.

Commissioner Shaun McCaffery noted “virtually everything” that happens at a winery or a vineyard could conceivably be argued as an agriculture promotional event, but he said rules for the road could be helpful so that wineries would not abuse the process.

“Ag promotional events are what we are after because that’s what this land is zoned for,” said McCaffery, who represents the grape growing regions of Alexander, Knights and Dry Creek valleys. “We don’t want weird stuff going on out there.”

The panel’s working draft has “agricultural promotion events” defined as events directly related to public education, sales and promotion of agricultural products to consumers that aligns with the county’s general plan.

The panel did make some progress under standards for the new policy in relation to topics such as traffic management, food service and noise setbacks, where it would tentatively require specific noise studies for compliance of large gatherings.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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Planning Commission to review draft Winery Events Ordinance on May 19

For Immediate Release

Santa Rosa, CA |
May 17, 2022

The Sonoma County Planning Commission will continue its consideration of a draft Winery Events Ordinance during a virtual public hearing on May 19 at 1:05 PM.

The draft ordinance would apply to new and modified use permit applications for winery visitor-serving uses in agricultural zoning districts outside of the Coastal Zone. 

The wine and tourism industry plays an important role in Sonoma County’s culture and economy. However, an overconcentration of winery events can negatively impact surrounding communities. Permit Sonoma seeks to balance these interests with new regulations for winery events. 

The Planning Commission took up the draft ordinance on June 3, 2021 and directed staff to return with a new table that compares the proposal with existing Citizen Advisory Council/Commission guidelines for winery visitor-serving uses. Permit Sonoma invites all interested persons to attend and provide comments.

The draft ordinance, comparison table and public comments previously submitted to Permit Sonoma are available at Permit Sonoma, 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95403l. They are also available digitally through the Winery Events website.

The Planning Commission public hearing will be conducted via video conference on May 19 beginning at 1:05 PM. No in-person commenting will be held. Members of the public may watch, listen and participate in the hearing through Zoom or by phone. In addition, written comments may be submitted until May 18 at 5 PM via email at

The agenda for the virtual Planning Commission hearing and project staff report will be posted one week prior to the hearing on the Planning Commission calendar.

For more information about the public hearing, to submit comments, or to review project files digitally, members of the public are encouraged to email the county at, call (707) 565-1900, option 5, or visit the project website at

Contact Information: 
Bradley Dunn, Policy Manager
2550 Ventura Ave
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
(707) 321-0502


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Goochland events venue Rassawek Vineyard plans to add a winery – Richmond BizSense

Goochland events venue Rassawek Vineyard plans to add a winery - Richmond BizSense

An aerial view of Rassawek Vineyard’s inaugural Autumn Festival in October. The Goochland County venue plans to bring the event back this year. (Photos courtesy of Rassawek Vineyard)

After adding converted rail cars-turned-short-term rentals on its grounds, a sprawling Goochland County events venue has plans to become the site of the region’s newest wine-making operation.

Rassawek Vineyard at 6276 River Road West, which has hosted Rassawek Spring Jubilee for more than a decade, wants to add a winery to its growing list of offerings.

The winery could open as early as 2023, though the venue is still working on most of the details of the project.

At least initially, the winery wouldn’t be open every day or to the general public. Instead, it would operate in coordination with other events at the property and be accessible to people who attend those events, Rassawek Event Planner Jessica Jessee said.

The winery would likely take up residence in one of the structures the venue’s owners have collected and moved to the property over the years. The square footage and seating capacity haven’t been determined yet.

“We are still deciding where on the property to have the main thrust of the winery project be,” Jessee said.

Owned by the Liesfeld family, Rassawek Vineyard already grows grapes on its property but it has yet to make wine onsite. Its grape crop is managed by Goochland-based Elk Island Winery, which last year helped produce a Rassawek-branded line of wines.

Beyond wine, Rassawek also plans to enclose an existing open-air wedding pavilion this year. The project will roughly double the space to 6,900 square feet. The venue has a wedding capacity of 150 to 200 seated guests.

“We are enclosing the space to expand our wedding season to year-round,” Jessee said. “This venue will be heated and cooled, which will allow for weddings during the summer and winter in addition to our spring and fall weddings we have lined up.”

She said the venue has fully booked its spring and fall wedding weekends for 2022.

Those moves come as the venue looks to take full advantage of a 2020 conditional-use permit to increase the range of programs and events it offers. One of the first such steps was the opening of five short-term rental properties on the grounds and the addition of a fall festival last year.

Rassawek Vineyard offers short-term rentals. Among them are modified train cars such as the one shown.

The Liesfeld property is 1,000 acres, of which 355 can be used for programming, per the 2020 CUP.

Rassawek’s five short-term rentals consist of two cabins and three train cars, which were opened to the public in June.

Among the retrofitted train car rentals is Rassawek’s Pullman car, which features a bedroom with two double beds, a four-person dining table, a full bathroom and a half bath. Jenny Liesfeld said Rassawek acquired the car after it had been renovated by its previous owner and it spurred the idea of renovating more train cars.

The venue also has a caboose, which has a full bathroom and four twin bunk beds, as well as a boxcar that features a queen-sized bed and kitchenette.

The Pullman and the caboose car were part of a private collection located at Lestor Manor in King William County and owned by Carroll Lee Walker. All the train cars were donations, Liesfeld said.

Jessee said the rentals have proven popular and plans are underway to open a sixth rental. The CUP allows the venue up to eight short-term rentals.

The short-term rentals were rented more than 50 times during the six months they were open in 2021, which Jessee said was above expectations.

The currently available rentals range in their nightly rates from $220 to $500. Renters have access to biking and fishing on the property, and the units either have full kitchens or have access to full kitchens.

This year will mark the first time Rassawek will hold both its big festival events in the same year. The Spring Jubilee hasn’t been held since 2019 due to the pandemic and is set to return in June.

The new Autumn Festival, which was held for the first time in October, will return in 2022. The fall festival is focused more on showcasing historic and contemporary trades like blacksmithing and welding, whereas the Spring Jubilee is focused on wine, food and arts and crafts.

The first autumn festival had 8,500 people attend, Jessee said. She added that the spring festival has attracted an average of 5,000 to 6,000 guests in past years.

Other ideas pitched for Rassawek, such as plans for an airstrip with which to hold air shows, and a zip-line course, are on the backburner for the time being. Plans to open the venue up to the general public on certain weekends is also under consideration.

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Planning Commission starts to write new rules for Sonoma County winery events

The crowd celebrates as the Avett Brothers perform during the Sonoma Harvest Music Festival at B.R. Cohn Winery in 2018. Whether or not such music events are ’agricultural’ in nature is one of the issues addressed in the draft winery event guidelines. (Photo by Darryl Bush / For The Press Democrat)

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday made progress in drafting new rules to fully regulate winery events, a yearslong debate that has pitted local neighborhood activists against the wine industry.

The panel revisited the same draft that it initially considered last June, but then delayed further action. This time, however, the commission began rewriting the draft in the virtual Zoom forum with the goal to ultimately pass the ordinance and send it to the Board of Supervisors.

They will continue the drafting at the next meeting.

The proposal would establish regulations for winery events, providing rules for such things as parking and traffic management, food service, coordination with neighbors and noise limits for those outside city limits.

It would apply only to new or modified permit applications.

The draft spells out such terms as “industrywide event” and “agricultural promotion events.” Those definitions would dictate the set of rules of governing the timing, food service and other activities of such events.

New members have joined the commission since last June, and they signaled a strong desire to move the issue along despite long-standing disagreements given that the Board of Supervisors first directed county staff to come up with a plan in October 2016. It has been kicked around since then without any formal action.

“The one thing I hope we won’t do is put this off for more stakeholder input,” said Commissioner Gregg Carr, who represents Sonoma Valley.

“I’ll be the first to admit that after six to seven years of sitting in stakeholder meetings, industry seminars, neighborhood meetings and stuff that there is not ever going to be any reasonable consensus on the standards.”

The disputes have been centered over rural areas where there is a high concentration of wineries. Neighbors have complained about traffic and noise among wine tourists. In contrast, the wineries contend they need visitors because they are reliant on more on direct-to-consumer sales as it is more difficult to get placement on retail shelves.

There are about 300 winery event and tasting room permits that have been issued in the county with more than half given from 2005-2015, according to county staff.

The issue is further complicated as two areas ― the Sonoma Valley and the Dry Creek Valley ― have their own community advisory councils and guidelines. They are designed to first consider event applications to address potential problems early in the process before formal hearings with county government. The Westside Road area does not have such a group.

The Sonoma Valley guidelines, for example, define a “winery event” as a gathering of 30 or more people at a pre-scheduled date and time. But some commissioners on Thursday said they did not want a specific number for guests in the countywide draft, and it was not included in the revision.

The commissioners also scrapped language detailing traditional business activities permitted by a winery. They instead will later spell out the specifics of what would be fall under the definition of an agricultural promotion event at their next hearing.

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Hatfield’s Black Birch Winery cleared to continue large-scale events

Hatfield’s Black Birch Winery cleared to continue large-scale events

Published: 2/8/2022 9:00:48 PM

Modified: 2/8/2022 8:59:07 PM

HATFIELD — After two seasons of concerts and similar large-scale events bringing visitors to Black Birch Winery, the business is having its site plan revised to be in compliance with town rules when performances resume this year.

The Planning Board this month unanimously approved the amended site plan for the 108 Straits Road property that will extend Black Birch’s hours from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and allow the winery to accommodate 12 large events per year, each of which draws between 150 and 300 people. An unlimited number of smaller events that are capped at 90 people also will be permitted.

“It will offer us flexibility in what we do and what we offer,” co-owner Michelle Kersbergen told planners at the board’s Feb. 2 meeting. She added that, in addition to the concerts, there will be an additional one or two events per week, mostly workshops, wine dinners and other smaller-scale functions.

That came in response to Planning Board member Jimmy Tarr noting his worry about giving Black Birch permission to have events throughout the year. “That gives me a little bit of a pause — theoretically you could have an event there every single day,” Tarr said.

The board’s decision revises the original special permit issued to Black Birch when it came to Hatfield in 2017. The business will continue to have hours of operation for its tasting room for noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays., as well as on holidays, as appropriate.

The amended site plan follows from the Select Board issuing an entertainment license to Black Birch last June that allowed concerts, put together by Signature Sounds, to be held from noon to 9 p.m.

Kersbergen said that Signature Sounds, as it schedules concerts this year, will cap tickets at 250.

The main focus for the business, she said, remains educating people about the winery through tours and samples, and Kersbergen said there is no intention to expand the tasting room.

“We’re not there after 6 because I don’t want to be a bar, I don’t want to have the mentality of being a bar,” Kersbergen said.

Meanwhile, a 1.8-megawatt alternating current solar project, with an associated 1.65-megawatt battery, is being proposed for an 8- to 9-acre portion of a 30 acre Routes 5 & 10 parcel.

The wooded site, with an address of 121 West St. and situated between Rocks Road to the north and Chestnut Street to the south, features a small single-family home that would be demolished to make way for the project.

Vegetation would be cleared from where the solar is built on the parcel, which is zoned as light industrial at the front of the property and rural residential at the rear.

“This could be the extent of the development,” consultant Russ Burke told the board.

Board member Bob Wagner said “front-loading makes a lot of sense,” noting that it would be more challenging to have the solar extend to the rear of the site, which features fragile land and a wildlife area as the grade changes and there are rocky outposts.

Wagner noted that the property is likely to be developed in the future with the ongoing extension of water and sewer lines along the state highway.

Burke said he anticipates filing plans for the project by early March and scheduling a hearing in April.