Fairfax County Project Highlights Tension Between Winemakers and Local Officials

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009; A01

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.

"Growing grapes is not an offensive thing to the environment. But having weddings and parties -- that's an unlimited use that could have an impact on the environment," Bonhivert said.

Strolling the grounds of a farm whose pedigree can be traced to colonial England, Jane Kincheloe Wiles and her son, Kirk, said they want to operate a winery as a way of keeping the farm in their family and preserving open space. The rustic farmhouse, layered like a cake and remodeled by a protege of Frank Lloyd Wright, has been outfitted with a wine-tasting bar and other amenities. Originally, the land had been part of 1,000 acres included in a 1716 land grant from Lord Fairfax.

"We feel like this is the perfect use for this property," said Jane Wiles, who inherited the property from an aunt more than four years ago. After naming the winery after a long-defunct company that had bottled mineral water in Clifton, the Wileses set about trying to grab a piece of a growing industry.

In 1979, there were six farm wineries in Virginia. Today there are more than 146, according to the Virginia Wine Board. In 2007, Virginia ranked as the eighth-largest producer of grapes in the country. With the growth has come progress in quality. At the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition this year, Virginia collected top honors in 10 of the 21 Best of Category tastings.

Working closely with Northern Virginia vintner Chris Pearmund, the Wileses planted 1,300 cabernet franc vines in April 2008 and produced wines at other facilities using other vineyards' grapes under the Paradise Springs label.

In July 2008, the Wileses sought formal approval for the winery from the county Department of Planning and Zoning. That October, Lorrie Kirst, deputy zoning administrator, issued an opinion that the Paradise Springs Winery would violate county zoning laws, largely because it would rely heavily on the importation of grapes. The Board of Zoning Appeals agreed.

County officials say that if the winery were allowed to operate, it would open the door to other such commercial ventures. County officials also have heard from neighbors who fear that the winery would create too much traffic, too much noise and too many drunk drivers in one of the few remaining rural areas of the county.

"People move out there because they like to have big lots and lots of space," said R. Scott Wynn, deputy county attorney who testified against the winery at the July 21 ABC hearing. Wynn said that, according to Paradise Springs Winery's business plan, it would need to truck in grapes from across Virginia for at least three years to make wine because it cannot yet grow enough on its own.

"That's not an agricultural use," Wynn said.

Denied permission by the county, the Wileses nonetheless went ahead with plans to obtain a license from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. About 20 people attended a July 21 hearing. Among those in favor was Clifton's mayor. But others were opposed. The town is still divided.

"I've heard there's a conflict in town because they're worried someone might be driving down the hill there after drinking," said Pete Laseau, 49, manager of Clifton Wine Cellars, a boutique wine and gourmet shop in town. "But a winery itself is a great idea. I think it's great for the town."

Others are not so sure.

Nancy Sampson, a neighbor who grew up with Jane Wiles and hunted fox on their property, said she is supportive of the venture but leery, especially about heavier traffic on winding Yates Ford Road. At the invitation of the Wileses, Sampson planted a grapevine in the vineyard in memory of a loved one in 2008.

"I think everybody at first was in agreement -- 'Okay, a vineyard, that's cool, that'll be nice,' " Sampson said. "And then we heard about the weddings and everything else. I want to be supportive, and at the same time, I worry about the traffic. And people get drunk."

Bonhivert, of the Occoquan Watershed Coalition, said that if the land use must change, his members would rather see seven new homes on the farm than a winery.

"That's the devil we know. The winery is the devil we don't know," he said.

If the ABC grants Paradise Springs a license, Wynn said, the county will probably sue to stop it. And then a court might have to decide a fight over what supporters say would be a novel way to preserve open space and boost tourism and what detractors say would be a menace to neighbors' peace of mind and motorists on its winding rural roads.

Frustrated by the county's stance, Kirk Wiles, 27, a financial analyst for a government contractor, said it might have been easier to cut up the land into five-acre plots for McMansions. They have already spent $50,000 on legal fees, he said.

"I just think it's so ridiculous," he said. "It's either going to be a winery or it's going to have to be subdivided into lots. It's all or nothing."

A decision from the ABC's administrative law judge is expected any day, spokesman Philip Bogenberger said.

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