City codes threaten winery

Jim Wilford, owner of Fletcher Bay Winery, pours grapes into a wine press to make this year’s Merlot. - Willie Wenzlau
Jim Wilford, owner of Fletcher Bay Winery, pours grapes into a wine press to make this year’s Merlot.
— image credit: Willie Wenzlau

Over the last few weeks Jim Wilford has been crushing and pressing grapes in his driveway to make this year's vintage of Fletcher Bay wines.

It's a hands-on process in which Wilford takes pleasure, whether he's selecting grapes or corking bottles. However, it's possible that vintage 2011 could be the last batch created by Fletcher Bay Winery.

It's a chore he enjoys during the harvest season, but Wilford encountered a problem this year when a neighbor complained to the city that he was violating city codes. As a home-based business in a residential area, city code requires that operations are conducted only indoors. This is a challenge for Wilford since there is little room indoors to crush and press grapes — a six-week process.

"I love it, I enjoy providing good wine for people to drink," Wilford said. "...if we want to continue this, with restrictions on what these small wineries can do, there's just not going to be any. It will be a part of the fabric of our community that will disappear."

Wilford started Fletcher Bay Wines in 2008 after years of producing wine at home as a hobby, and he is not alone. Several other wineries have also emerged on the island — many home-based with varying indoor and outdoor operations — to form an industry that has become attractive to visitors.

There may be other home-based wineries that don’t meet the code, but the city’s planning director said there haven’t been complaints filed against them.

“If we got specific complaints, we would have to ensure that other operations comply with the code,” said Kathy Cook, director of the city’s Planning and Community Development Department. “If you don’t comply with the code we have to address that issue.”

The process in question involves the use of large tubs where grapes are crushed and then pressed to remove all the liquid. The liquid is stored in large metal tanks to allow sediment to settle. The tubs and tanks can take up considerable space, which has led Wilford to producing Fletcher Bay wines in front of his home. The neighbor’s complaint cited how home occupations are not allowed to have any exterior indications of the business.

“So far the other (home-based) wineries haven’t had complaints, and I think they’re optimistic that they won’t,” Wilford said. “But they are just a phone call away, or a complaint away, from being in the same situation.”

Cook looked into possible solutions with Wilford, but no viable options were found. Each solution – from purchasing farm land to expanding structures on his own property – came with further obstacles within the city codes.

“People who want to conduct a home occupation need to understand the limitations and perimeters established by code,” Cook said. “(Wilford) has been making wine at his private residence as part of what is called a ‘home occupation.’”

Cook’s final recommendation, and Wilford’s next option, is to bring the matter directly to the city with the hope of having the specific land use code changed, or at least altered, so that accommodations for local wineries can be made during harvest season.

“What I suggested he should do is talk to his council members and let them know that the code has unintentional consequences on this business,” Cook said. “The best avenue is seeing if there is an interest with the council to get the code changed. Within the existing codes we weren’t able to find the best avenue for him.”

Craft wines have become a recent phenomenon on Bainbridge Island as enthusiasts have taken their passion for crafting their own wines to the next level — inviting everyone else to enjoy a taste. In addition to the tasting rooms owned by the Eleven Winery and the Eagle Harbor Winery along Winslow Way, Wilford recently opened a tasting room, Island Vintners, featuring his wines as well as two other artisan wineries — Victor Alexander and Amelia Wynn.

There are currently nine wineries on the island of varying forms, including “estate” wineries Bainbridge Island Vineyard & Winery and Perennial Vintners, both of which produce wine from their own island-grown grapes. The others, similar to craft beer brewers, select crops from other regions to use at their island wineries.

Eleven and Eagle Harbor wineries operate in industrial zones, the remaining island wineries are all located on their residential properties. Four out of the seven wineries included in the Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island are home-based.

“If nothing changes (by next fall) and I’m not allowed to process grapes outdoors then I’ll shut down the winery as soon as I run out of wine, which would be a year later,” Wilford said. “And at that point, I’ll close the tasting room downtown.”

To get this year’s crush completed, Wilford was able to get part of the work completed offsite at an extra expense, and also by navigating the tight quarters of his storeroom. But these aren’t long-term solutions, he said.

“It’s not practical to try and do everything indoors,” he said. “I can’t do it and that’s the issue. Bottling can be done indoors, but the other stuff needs to be done outdoors.”

Wilford said that it also is a concern for any new small wineries that want to start up and add to the local wine community on the island.

“The city benefits directly from the increased sales tax revenue that results from the growing recognition of Bainbridge Island as the new ‘darling’ of Washington’s local wine regions,” said Andrea Mackin, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association. “...additional benefits can be felt by Winslow’s many restaurants, who all appreciate the increased foot traffic on tasting weekends.”

The efforts of local wineries have proven to be successful drawing visitors to the island. In 2010, the Eleven Winery said it had approximately 10,000 paying visitors, while Eagle Harbor claims to have had 3,900 paying visitors walk into its tasting rooms on Winslow Way.

Eagle Harbor winemaker Hugh Remash said the number is actually higher due to visitors to their winery on Sportsman Club Road who are not counted.

Wilford’s tasting room, Island Vintners, opened its doors over the summer.

“Right now there is quite a lot of square feet of office and retail space that are empty (downtown),” said Paul Bianchi of Amelia Wynn Winery. “But the tasting rooms remain open, so that’s got to say something.”

Mackin said that recently a group of executives from GOOGLE came to the island over a weekend aiming to visit all the local wineries after their corporate meeting planner had read of the wineries in an article in Sunset Magazine.

“As the profile of Bainbridge Island’s wine industry continues to rise, it helps increase the value of all sorts of lifestyle-related items such as land and housing,” Mackin said. “At this point, the island’s winemakers are doing more to help restart the local economy through the visitors and potential transplants than just about any other active effort."


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