On-Site Wine Tastings Key Issue in Small Wineries Suit Against Napa County

Lindsay Hoopes purchased the Hopper Creek Winery in Oakville in 2017. Nearly two decades previously, in 1999, Napa County had adopted an ordinance limiting the number and size of on-site tours and tastings and requiring wineries to have permits to do them. Wineries that were operating before the ordinance was adopted didn't have to get a permit to do on-site tours and tastings.

After Hoopes bought the winery, she changed its name to Hoopes Vineyards & Winery, and offered wine tastings just as Hopper Creek had for nearly 40 years. Napa County is suing to prevent Hoopes from continuing to offer on-site tours and tastings.

The county agrees she is exempt from the requirement to get a permit. But, says Arthur Hartinger, an attorney representing Napa County, "A use permit exemption does not allow for tours, tastings or consuming wine on the premises. The prior owner, called Hopper Creek winery, only possessed the use permit exemption and that is what Hoopes purchased."  

Hoopes says the county "is functionally trying to take our rights to operate as wineries. This will force us to sell or close."

Hoopes, a former San Francisco deputy district attorney, calls the county's action a "monumental government overreach" and is asking state and federal officials to investigate what she says is a civil rights violation.

“We lose more and more family wineries and small businesses each year due to the difficult and hostile environment Napa County has created,” said Heather Griffin, a Partner at Summit Lake Vineyards.  “The maze of codes and compliance regulations are used and added to at the whim of Napa County.  We need the county to support our small businesses and families, not try to kill us all off. We are asking the state and federal government to step in to help us preserve what has made Napa such a special and historic place.”

Napa County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Smith ruled in November 2022 that the County was unlikely to prevail on the merits of its lawsuit against Hoopes Vineyards. In spite of this ruling, the County has pressed on with its illegal action at extraordinary taxpayer expense, alleging that no one is allowed to stay on the property and consume wine in any format.  The County, however, does not have the authority to prohibit that activity, Hoopes, a law professor, argues. 

Hoopes has an O-2 permit which, pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 23558, allows licensed winegrowers to “sell wine to consumers for consumption on the premises.” Importantly, the law holds that local authorities “may restrict, but not eliminate, [these] privileges.”

In Napa County, wineries that sought permits after 1990 had to go through a discretionary conditional use permit process in which those operators may agree to some restrictions that could limit their ability to sell wine or offer tastings and tours, such as limitations on hours of operation or number of visitors.  However, small wineries like Hoopes, Smith-Madrone and Summit Lake that were in existence before the Winery Definition Ordinance of 1990 were grandfathered in as an “integral part of the Napa Valley economy.” Napa County Code sections 18.16.020(H), 18.104.040 and 18.08.040 explicitly allow wineries with small winery use permits and exemptions in existence prior to 1990 (like Hoopes, Smith-Madrone and Summit Lake) to operate as wineries, including marketing, sales, and any related winery accessory uses, under their existing entitlements.

"Napa County must stop treating small family wineries like the red-headed step-child,” said Stu Smith, founder/general partner at Smith-Madrone Vineyards. “We pre- winery Definition Ordinance wineries are the goose that laid the golden egg for Napa County and now the County has turned on us and is seemingly strangling us.  The County must stop changing the rules from behind closed doors."