Vineyard viability? Napa’s in the know

The debate over non-agricultural activities and functions at North Fork wineries did not originate with the brouhaha over the NOFO Rock and Folk Fest at Peconic Bay Winery. It (the debate) is almost as old as the industry here itself.

Not too many years after Louisa and Alex Hargrave established their groundbreaking Cutchogue vineyard, I recall area restaurateurs lobbying vociferously against allowing vineyards to install professional kitchens for parties and other special events. It would represent unfair competition, the argument went, and for many years only licensed caterers were allowed to serve food at local wineries.

I remember thinking at the time that those restaurateurs were being shortsighted, that the proliferation of wineries here would only complement the restaurant industry in the long term — just as it has complemented restaurants in California’s Napa and Sonoma counties. Food and wine always have gone together like, well, food and wine, and what’s good for one industry is arguably good for the other, I reasoned. (The exception, of course, might be those eating establishments that sling out fried food and instant mashed potatoes. They are unlikely to benefit from the mystic synergy between f&w.)

And please be advised that California wineries are not alone in their ability to operate restaurants, B&Bs and inns. Local laws passed by various jurisdictions in New York’s upstate wine region allow such enterprises at vineyards, which suggests there’s nothing in New York State law that would prevent Southold Town from following suit — if our Town Board were so inclined.

Still, one element of the naysaying North Fork restaurateurs’ argument resonated with me then, just as it resonates with me now: If they (the grape growers) are going to compete with us (the restaurateurs), let them do it on an even playing field. It’s simply not fair, the argument goes, to tax a winery as a farm if it’s being operated as a non-agricultural business, serving food, hosting weddings and other special events, even operating as a de facto nightclub, as one area winery has recently been accused of doing.

What’s changed over the years, of course, is the nature of grape- growing and winemaking here from a wholesale business into a retail business. “The viability of this industry is based on retail sales,” The Old Field Vineyards owner Chris Baiz was quoted as saying in a recent edition of The Suffolk Times. “We’ve shifted to tourism.” Which is why vineyards here should be allowed to do what vineyards in California and the Finger Lakes region are allowed to do.

With one big caveat: Tax those portions of their operations dedicated to non-agricultural uses just as you would tax any other business. So if, for example, two acres of a 50-acre vineyard are being used for wedding receptions and for-profit concerts, tax the two acres as commercial property and the remaining 48 acres as agricultural. The vineyard owners might not like it, but it seems only fair, and it might allow for the expansion of such enterprises as restaurants and inns within the vineyards themselves. And that would be a very good thing, in my opinion, as long as they adhere to the same rules and regulations, including Southold’s anticipated new noise ordinance, that other businesses must follow.

Another variation on this theme — one raised recently by Supervisor Scott Russell — involves rezoning vineyards as Agricultural Planned Development Districts, which might exchange limited commercial uses for the incremental sale of development rights to the town, precluding the conversion of an economically non-viable vineyard into, oh, I don’t know, a housing development!

What appears to have been overlooked — at least in the context of this renewed debate — is the importance of vineyards to our quality of life here. They, more than anything else — with the possible exception of Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program and the East End towns’ Community Preservation Fund — have helped keep our spaces comparatively open, our taxes comparatively low and our economy comparatively robust.

It is in everyone’s best interest to see our local vineyards thrive and, yes, expand — even if it means giving them the tools to do more than grow grapes and make wine.