Fauquier County to votes on rules for farm wineries

September 7, 2011

Barrel Oak Winery had more than 1,500 visitors over Labor Day weekend — maybe 2,000, owner Brian Roeder said lightly, if you count children and dogs.

There were sport-utility vehicles and limos and cars parked up and down the hillside in rural Fauquier County. People crowded around bars tasting wines. Dogs chased after Frisbees. Bands played. Children tottered in the crab grass under picnic tables. Families filled long tables, unpacking coolers and opening bottles of Barrel Oak wine.

“When I came down here and plunked this great big winery here on the hillside, a lot of people were appalled,” Roeder said. Four years ago, Barrel Oak wasn’t there, and his wife, Sharon, was a government contractor, not an award-winning winemaker. Now their Delaplane winery is the biggest in Fauquier, one of the busiest and fastest-growing winemaking regions of the state.

The growth of Virginia farm wineries has been dramatic, nearly tripling in the past decade to 209, with much of the recent growth in Loudoun and Fauquier counties. Fauquier has 26 wineries now.

That’s either a champagne cocktail or a can of skunked beer, depending whom you ask, as people here disagree stridently about whether wineries help preserve farmland or disrupt the countryside.

After several years of bitter debate, county leaders had planned to vote Thursday on a new law regulating farm wineries. But on Wednesday evening, Peter B. Schwartz, the supervisor who sponsored the legislation, decided the board was getting so much intense intense feedback — and the issue is so emotionally charged that even minor tweaks would be explosive if done last-minute — that he would ask the board to postpone the vote for a few months until after the grape harvest.

Some say the new rules would be so restrictive that they would choke wineries out of business; others fear it would give winery owners too much leeway to host noisy events and crowd rural roads with tipsy drivers.

The proposal would limit farm winery hours and events and ban amplified music if it can be heard at the property line.

Like ‘Footloose’

The governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), loves Virginia wines, pouring them during international trade missions. There are tax breaks for grape growers, and the General Assembly voted several years ago to effectively insulate farm wineries from strict local rules. It’s a top priority for the administration to promote Virginia wines, according to Agriculture and Forestry Secretary Todd Haymore, because they foster economic development, job creation and farmland preservation. And there’s a romance to vineyards — people get married at wineries and plan vacations around them.

But to some neighbors and conservationists, the wineries are just loud bars smack in the middle of the country. That’s especially true in quiet Fauquier, where roads roll over hills past endless white fences and thoroughbreds in fields. When night falls here, the only lights are fireflies winking or the tiny glow from a house far down a long driveway

For years, Fauquier restricted events at wineries so that almost any gathering required a special permit. Often, hundreds of people would show up at public hearings to oppose them, said Philip Carter Strother of Philip Carter Winery.

It didn’t help that one of the oldest wineries here is owned by a family “now justly and internationally known for being obnoxious,” said Yakir Lubowsky, a local conservationist on the board of Citizens for Fauquier County. The Oasis Winery, owned by the Salahi family, startled neighbors with fireworks, helicopters and crowds on their quiet back roads. (Oasis’s ownership has been in dispute in recent years after a family dispute.) The second-generation owner, Tareq Salahi, and his wife, Michaele, have in recent years been accused of crashing a White House dinner and not paying many of their bills.

Tareq Salahi said the complaints were exaggerated and the county drove their winery into bankruptcy. “It’s like ‘Footloose,’ ” he said, referring to the 1980s movie in which local officials tried to prohibit dancing.

Strother thinks the tensions were probably inevitable, as the industry grew and fledgling winemakers — who face steep upfront costs and long waits for vines and vintages to mature before they make money — tried different business models to sell wine.

In 2007, Virginia adopted a law meant to foster the growth of wineries, limiting what local leaders could do to restrict them. Since then, Fauquier supervisors have been discussing how to change county rules to ensure they are in compliance.

“It’s arbitrary and capricious,” Strother said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

The Fauquier Wine Council opposes the proposed rules because it believes they could drive farm wineries out of business and stifle growth in the industry. The council has argued that the rules would violate state law by restricting the rights of the wineries to sell their products and because the county has not done a study of the potential economic impact.

Citizens for Fauquier County decided, with significant reservations, to support the ordinance. “Our letter basically says you’ve got to start somewhere,” said Leslie Cheek III, the vice president of the group.

Moving beyond conflict

On Tuesday morning, the crowds were gone from Barrel Oak. A fog was drifting through the blue hills along the horizon and rain fell on the barns and vines on the farm. Sharon Roeder and workers had harvested their Seyval blanc grapes the day before, and now they were loading them into a press.

“Over half the wineries in the county are struggling,” Roeder said.

Even though the new ordinance would mean a complete change in how Barrel Oak operates, unless it is are granted an exception, Brian Roeder supports it. “We have to move past this conflict,” he said.

With all the Seyval blanc grapes loaded, his wife turned to a load of dark purple grapes, and began sifting through, pulling out unripe green fruit.

Meanwhile, down the road at Oasis Winery, the Salahis have plans. They’re throwing a Hollywood-themed party this month, they say, with a band and a fashion show, to celebrate their reopening.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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