Fairfax County Project Highlights Tension Between Winemakers and Local Officials

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009

Grapes have already bloomed on the vines growing in tidy, picturesque rows on the grounds of what could become Fairfax County's first winery.

But a legal tangle involving the owners, the county and the state threatens to kill the venture before its second harvest.

Paradise Springs Winery began as the project of a mother and son searching for ways to pay inheritance taxes on a historic farm. Its owners expect to hear any day whether the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will grant them a license to make and sell wine in Clifton, a corner of southern Fairfax filled with horse farms and sprawling five-acre lots. But even if the state grants a license, the county is likely to fight the winery, arguing that it is more of a factory than a farm and therefore inconsistent with zoning laws.

Besides rehashing frictions that exist between Richmond and Northern Virginia, the conflict demonstrates the tensions that have grown between local governments and increasingly powerful winemakers and their friends in the General Assembly.

Virginia's wine industry remains tiny compared with California's, but the state has made great strides in the quality and quantity of its wines. Thirty years ago, the idea that Virginia could produce a quality table wine was enough to draw gasps.

Finding no more success than Thomas Jefferson, who failed at establishing a wine industry in the commonwealth despite years of trying, early winemakers struggled with Virginia's humid climate, which can cause fungi to attack the fruit. Aficionados complained of off odors and bitterness. But university researchers and a 1980 law that drastically cut the licensing fees gave the industry a boost.

To nurture the wine industry, state lawmakers in recent years have exempted farm wineries from local regulation of their operations. The most controversial of those are special events hosted by wineries, such as wine-tasting festivals and weddings, that seem tangential to agriculture but which winemakers say are crucial to their financial survival.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law, sponsored by Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) and signed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, that limits a local government's ability to regulate farm wineries except for safety risks and the noise level of outdoor music.

Albo said he carried the bill because of local interference in a friend's Fauquier County winery and his interest in protecting a thriving young industry.

"I just can't stand it when the government tries to nickel-and-dime businesses for money," Albo said.

At the same time, however, Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) quietly pushed a bill that would have allowed Fairfax alone to impose reasonable restrictions on wineries. His bill died -- a testament to the wine industry's lobbying power.

"It seems to us that the legislation passed by the wine lobby is dangerous for the environment," said Jim Bonhivert, president of the Occoquan Watershed Coalition, which opposes the Paradise Springs Winery.

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