New Sonoma County Ordinance – Winery Events

Tue, 03/14/23

Today, the Board of Supervisors closed a nine-year project of defining a winery “event.”  Although the term “event” has been used in hundreds of use permits for many decades, the term was never defined until now. 

While the new ordinance is directed at winery events, the ordinance also provides other definitions, such as a definition of a winery itself, what “food service” means, how to deal with overflow parking, and the hours during which events may occur.

Most importantly, there is now clarity on something that has been the subject of various Code Enforcement actions – whether or not something taking place at a winery qualifies as an event.  Most use permits only allow a limited number of events, so knowing what an “event” is before getting a call from Code Enforcement is important in staying compliant with one’s use permit.   

Under this new ordinance, something is not an “event” if it takes place within the operational hours of the winery, is part of its normal business practice, and has no more attendees than the numerical limit of attendees allowed in the use permit.  There are some exceptions, and additional criteria, but as an example – most gatherings of visitors enjoying food and wine pairings within normal tasting hours will no longer be considered one of a winery’s limited number of events. 

There is some ambiguity in the new ordinance, and we will have to see how the new ordinance is enforced and how new permitting incorporates the details of this new ordinance.  That said, the distinction between “activities” and “events” has been a divisive issue for many years.  Now, the majority of the Board of Supervisors has decided that the distinction is not only reasonable but codified.  The vote was 3/2 so, even though the ordinance passed, it was not smooth sailing. 

What might be next?  The Supervisor for the northern part of the County, James Gore, floated an idea for later.  He appears to be interested in a streamlined method for existing wineries to amend their current use permit to incorporate this new activity/event distinction without having to go through the entire use permitting process from the proverbial “square one.”  Hopefully, the evaluation of such a process will not take another nine years’ time.

In closing, while the County has asserted that this new ordinance will not affect current wineries – only affecting new use permit applicants – it is likely that the new ordinance will be a rubric for evaluating complaints.  Otherwise, Code Enforcement officers have no definition of event against which to measure the purported wrongdoer’s compliance with its existing use permit. 

All in all, this new ordinance is a “win” for everyone.  It provides clarity to the term winery “event” and acknowledges that sometimes, a winery activity is just that, an “Activity.”

Please contact Kim Corcoran at (or 707-526-4200) if you have any questions about the new ordinance, or want to discuss any other land use issue. 

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