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Virginia Supreme Court rules in favor of Marterella Winery

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A fight between a Northern Virginia winery and a local homeowners association has ended with the state’s highest court overturning a ruling that had effectively shut down a Fauquier County winery’s tasting room last summer.

The Virginia Supreme Court on Monday upheld a jury’s verdict that found Marterella Winery was allowed to start its business and operate as a tasting room, despite a covenant by a homeowners association that said any commercial activity on the property required approval from a committee.

The case had been closely watched for its potential impact on Virginia vineyards, which have grown at an explosive rate over the past decade and engendered both ardent supporters and fierce opponents. Proponents, including many state leaders, praise farm wineries for creating a valuable product, attracting tourists and protecting rural land. But some neighbors and local officials complain that the vineyards’ tasting rooms, where the vast majority of Virginia wines are sold, have created poorly regulated taverns in the midst of farmland, bringing crowds and drunk drivers to narrow, dark country roads.

The case was intensely felt, too — both by neighbors of the Marterella Winery who said their property values, their homes and their way of life were being destroyed, and by the Marterella family. The ruling came less than a month after the death of Jerry Marterella, who was fighting cancer as the case wound its way through the courts. The business was shut down and its finances collapsed. Marterella said last fall that he hoped to live to see the winery prevail in court.

“This is good news in wine country,” said Philip Carter Strother, a lawyer who runs a winery and has represented a vineyard across the street from the Marterellas. He thinks the ruling clearly ends an ideological divide between the wineries and local communities over the regulation of wineries. “The General Assembly made it clear that the counties need to be hands-off when regulating the agricultural side of farm wineries,” but people have debated whether the vineyards’ tasting rooms, where people can buy and drink wine, are an agricultural or a commercial enterprise.

The argument has been that the tasting rooms should be regulated differently than the rest of the property, allowing stricter safety regulations for crowded event rooms, for example.

“What this case does is make it very clear that . . . on-site sales is part and parcel to the farm winery,” Strother said. “You can’t have a farm winery without on-site sales.” It’s a home run, he said, for Virginia winemakers.

Kate Marterella said she is thrilled with the ruling, and will reopen Memorial Day weekend with a memorial each night for her husband. “It’s a sad story,” she said, “but I think we’re going to have a happy ending here.”

Several opponents of the Marterella’s winery, including the head of the homeowners association, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.

The attorney for the homeowners association was not available Monday.

Bellevue Farms, a sprawling neighborhood in Warrenton crisscrossed with riding trails and dotted with stables, has, like many communities in Northern Virginia, rules that homeowners agree to follow when they purchase property.

The Bellevue Landowners’ Council sued Kate and Jerry Marterella several years ago, saying that their request to open a winery had been declined by the board because it violated the rules of their homeowners association, and that the family had ignored that and opened one in defiance of the board’s decision. The Marterellas were allowed to grow grapes, but not to open what the council’s attorney called a tavern.

The Marterellas argued that the rules expressly permitted agriculture but required board approval for commercial enterprises, and because there was already a winery operating across the street, they made a large investment, confident that their winery was permitted.

A jury ruled in their favor in 2009. A trial court judge later discarded that ruling and the Marterellas shut down their business.

The Virginia Supreme Court reinstated the verdict of the jury. The jury had been charged with determining whether the homeowners association’s statements permitted the winery with a tasting room, whether the Marterellas relied on those statements in starting their business, and whether they incurred expense based on that, according to the Supreme Court ruling. “Nothing in the jury instructions required the jury to find that the Marterellas’ interpretation of the word ‘agriculture’ was reasonable,” or that other decisions they made were reasonable, the ruling says; that standard was ‘injected’ by the trial court.

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