Guest appearance: Stu Smith on the future of the Napa Valley wine industry

Today we turn the blog over to a guest:

Stuart Smith was born and raised in Santa Monica. He founded Smith-Madrone in the high-altitude steep-slope Spring Mountain District AVA in the Napa Valley in 1971. This letter from Stu ran in the May 28, 2024 issue of The Napa Valley Register

Photo of Stu and Charlie receiving award

Congressman Mike Thompson came to the winery to present Stu and his brother Charles with a plaque honoring the winery’s 50th anniversary in May, 2021.

I’m very concerned for the future of the Napa Valley wine industry. The wine industry is the very agriculture that the General Plan was written to protect. It states “the highest and best use of land is agriculture:” in other words, wineries and vineyards. Yet three Napa supervisors outright ignore our General Plan.

For the first time ever, our supervisors overturned a staff approved Erosion Control Plan for the Le Colline project by upholding an appeal from the Center For Biological Diversity. Why is this important? The applicants spent over nine years dotting every “I” and crossing every “T” that Napa County asked of them. The applicants reportedly paid close to $2 million to Napa County for them to create an Environmental Impact Report on their project.

At that appeal hearing for the CBD, Planning Director Brian Bordona said he approved the Le Colline Erosion Control Plan, and there would be “no impact” on the environment. Yet Supervisors Ramos, Gallagher and Cottrell rejected their own report and supported the CBD appeal, even though the CBD has a checkered history with the truth.

The supervisors’ votes against Le Colline are unassailably anti-agriculture, as was denigrating their own EIR for justification in supporting the CBD appeal and stopping the Le Colline project. That the supervisors used their own EIR against the applicants that had to pay for that EIR seems to me horribly wrong.

Our supervisors have turned a deaf ear to the needs of the small family winery. No one can deny our wine industry is the economic engine of Napa County and the small family winery is its heartbeat. It is the wine industry that enticed fine dining restaurants, hotels and resorts to open here and thus attract the visitors who provide Napa County with its tax revenues.

I’ve heard from many small winery owners who are deeply afraid of becoming the next target of the county a la Lindsay Hoopes. Both Summit Lake Vineyards and Smith-Madrone Winery tried to support Lindsay Hoopes because we recognized the inherent unfairness of the County’s litigation against her and the chilling effect it’s having on family wineries. That this litigation is over visitation and tasting wine at a decades old “Licensed Winery” and has cost millions is unconscionable. This is a colossal failure of leadership by Napa County. While I believe that the passage of the WDO allowed wineries with a “Use Permit Exemption” to host tours & tastings it’s clear that the 44-year old “Small Winery Use Permit Exemption” is stale, out-of-date and should have been retired and replaced decades ago. Having a “Use Permit Exemption” that prohibits tours and tastings is like owning a sports car with no engine – it’s useless. Additionally, a California O2 license, that all wineries have, grants a winery the right to have customers consume wine on the winery’s premise and prohibits Napa from eliminating that right.

Why is Napa County attacking Lindsay Hoopes when there are dozens of other “Use Permit Exemption” wineries holding daily tours & tastings and Napa County is turning a blind eye to them? Some of the most prestigious wineries in the county are in this group. Selective prosecution of some wineries, but not others, is wrong.

The county should have and I believe still can craft a settlement with Hoopes that would give her and all other “Use Permit exemption” wineries a minimum of say ten visitors per day and then we can all move on from this embarrassment. This should have been done several years ago.

Looking at Napa County’s Winery database, Napa County has allocated 23,000 visitors per day. It’s clear from that list that Napa County favors the largest wineries. 157 wineries, or thirty percent of all Napa wineries, can host zero visitors. The next tranche are 78 wineries that can host an average of seven visitors per day. Yet the largest 55 wineries can host an average of 300 visitors per day for a total of 16,500 which equates to 72% of all visitors to our Valley. One winery gets 2,625 visitors per day.

This allocation of visitors is arbitrary and capricious and is neither fair nor equitable. It does not have to do with infrastructure. We don’t tell folks where to buy their groceries or shop for clothes so why does the County decide where visitors should go and not go? Shouldn’t the visitor be able to go where they want? Is the County intentionally limiting visitors to the small family wineries and thus directing visitors to the larger wineries? Here is another nail by Napa County into the coffin of the small family winery.

Stu Smith

St. Helena


The disappearing family farm—everywhere?

An article in The New York Times on May 30 sparked me to write a letter to the editor of the Napa Valley Register contrasting the situation in Napa Valley.

It’s here:

And here’s the letter:

How Napa County is treating small wineries

Julie Ann Kodmur

June 10, 2024

If your life and livelihood have anything to do with growing grapes in the Napa Valley, I recommend an article in the New York Times which details Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s concern for the ongoing loss of small farms throughout the U.S. Since 1981, our country has lost 544,000 small family farms, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Vilsack asks if we’re OK with that.

There is a very important and very unsettling contrast in what our agriculture secretary is saying and doing, trying to save small family farms and how Napa County is treating small family wineries.

Vilsack has a plan: he’s working on multiplying and improving revenue streams to help farm balance sheets. Rather than just selling crops and livestock, farms of the future could also sell carbon credits, waste products and renewable energy.

Why does the federal government recognize the value of small family farms and Napa County does not? Vilsack is very respectful of what small operations bring to the big picture. Why don’t we get that same kind of respect from our leaders? Why isn’t there creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and problem-solving?

Small wineries have been the heartbeat of the Napa Valley for the last 50 years — economically, culturally, environmentally — yet Napa County seems to be stomping the life out of these operations. They are not supporting the 2008 General Plan. They’re not gathering wineries around a big table to brainstorm solutions. When winery after winery is denied the right to exist, or regulated out of existence, no protestation about how the county is “really” pro-Ag seems believable. Look at the actions and deeds, not their words.

Vilsack is working on increasing farmers’ income and access to the marketplace. Napa County, on the other hand, is slamming the door through a huge array of regulations, whether it’s limiting visitation, requiring a CEQA review for one more employee, out-of-date use permitting and more. Why isn’t there a concern on the part of the county about how this mountain of regulations will make Napa wineries less competitive? Why hasn’t the county reviewed its regulations in relation to other wine growing counties in California?

Maybe we could invite Vilsack to visit?

Julie Ann Kodmur

St. Helena


The statistics referenced in The New York Times article can be found on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics service website:

Transparency in Napa County’s winery database?

If a winery in Napa County wants to know what Napa County allows the winery to do (how many visitors, etc.), the document most often cited is the “Napa County Winery Database.” It can be found here:,%20Building%20&%20Environmental%20Services/

napa transparency

Here is a letter to the editor of the Napa Valley Register which appeared on April 13, 2024.

Letter: Questions about County maintained winery information

By Julie Ann Kodmur

Transparency and accountability in government are hot topics today. I was extremely surprised when I bumped up against this recently.

In October, I submitted a public-records-request to Napa County asking for documents detailing how and when the Napa County Winery Database was created, maintained, and updated.

I asked how the county officially recorded pre-Winery Definition Ordinance winery entitlements after the WDO was enacted in 1990.

I asked why the Database is absent from the County’s website, considering that one could search “Napa County Winery Database” on Google and access a PDF from March 2019.

In late December the county responded, stating they have no documents that address my questions. Specifically, they said that “the requests do not correspond with categories of records that the County maintains. The County made a reasonable effort to locate and produce records that it determined were responsive.”

The response they gave me suggests that the County lacks a structured system or database for documenting wineries’ entitlements. However, recent testimony during the Lindsay Hoopes v. Napa County trial indicates that County compliance officers referenced the database while conducting code enforcement activities. From attending the trial I saw the myriad of conflicting interpretations and opinions which County staff express about the regulations. This is extremely concerning.

In reality, then, there does exist a winery database utilized by staff and the Planning Commission. However, the database is not accurate nor reliable; it’s full of inconsistencies and contradictions. Nowhere does the County clarify or acknowledge any of the discrepancies and inaccuracies in the Database.

Wineries! Hotel and restaurant industry colleagues! Please reach out to the Board of Supervisors, the County Planning Department and the County CEO to encourage transparency and better government/business practices, please! Maybe the “wine community” at large can spur some corrective action as far as the (frankly) colossal mess around the winery database.

Julie Ann Kodmur

St. Helena

Time for a check up!

919 Calendar November Stock Videos, Footage, & 4K Video Clips - Getty Images

The calendar pages are flying away—it’s unbelievable that we’re two and a half months into a new year!

If you can, take a breath, step away from the computer…and look at your communications efforts and see how you’re doing.

Have you refreshed the copyright date at the bottom of your website?

Do you have fact sheets up on your website for all of your current releases (and likewise, downloadable bottle photos and labels)? Are the bios of your principals current, with appealing photos?

Do you have a news or blog page which has been updated since 2024 arrived?!

How often are social media posts happening? Are they a mix of ‘serious’ content and a lighter touch, with glimpses of ‘real’ people, vineyards, barrels? Can you occasionally quote from feedback from customers? What about sharing/reposting images and messages from the outside world?!

How often are you sending eblasts to your mailing list/club members? Are they always bottom-line-oriented, or are you trying to slip in occasional ones which don’t have a heavy sales message? Maybe you have a new solar array or are planting a new varietal or one of the wines has won a big award?

Anything to re-think about the tasting room experience? Lately I’ve been hearing back that visitors to tasting rooms are uncomfortable with heavy-handed “join our club” focus as wines are being presented.

Good old-fashioned public relations! Do you have a new winemaker? New certification for the vineyard? A new distributor or importer? There may be news lurking in your world which could be announced and attract some eyeballs.

Good old-fashioned community relations! Do you supply rack cards to hotels or tourist-welcome offices? Is that card correct and up-to-date or does it maybe need a refresh? Do you visit local concierges with gift bottles and rack cards? If not, might that be an idea?

Sugar & Spice

Personality! Are there local issues where the winery should have a voice? Those might be politics or not…but subjects where neighbors and customers might like to learn that the winery is a long-time supporter of the local Boy Scout troop….or children’s art center….or a local horse rescue organization.

Speak up and speak out. Every gesture you make can generate that slight increase in awareness which may or may not be scientifically measurable but may cause one more car to turn into your parking lot!

A post which should have appeared at the end of 2023: with apologies!

It’s OND, guys! All of us in the wine business are scurrying to handle the last three months of the year uptick in sales. At the same time we’re seeing some prognosticators predicting dire times.

I’d like to take an entirely different tack. If you take a quick trip around the internet to see how wineries and wine-related entities are communicating, there’s a lot of good cheer, and most importantly, clever and memorable messages happening. Wineries telling personal stories, pulling the curtain back to share behind-the-scenes moments, moments of humor and fun.

For example, did you know you could saber a Champagne bottle on the slopes? Maximilian Riedel shared how to do it.  What about helping your customers wrap a bottle?!

Want to brush up on bilateral cordons? Stu steps in. Or what about letting a winery transport you to Japan for a sushi-making lesson?

Don’t you need a Christmas sweater? Dave Phinney has one for you.

Share your creativity with a unique way to share holiday spirit.

A moment of beauty in the vineyard, a drone capturing erosion control or just sharing an iconic Italian landscape.

and the footprints of a visiting bear.

Hats off to Inglenook, who welcomed the community and the St. Helena Community Band in its historic setting.

Jean-Charles really did it, in his leopard boxers, jumping in to stomp grapes in his boxers.

And Josh took the challenge from the cellar crew to dig out a tank.

Don’t forget the obvious: what does your tasting room look like, all decked out for the holidays?! Wintry weather scenes are always appealing too.

Photogenic young winemakers are the focus of a tongue-in-cheek series in Bordeaux.

Then there’s aspirational imagery, enjoying gold dust on your cappuccino on your travels.

Or sharing the winery dog’s adventures, from naughty to nice.

My advice?

“Crank up” that iPhone! Don’t worry about how polished your vignette may or may not be: if it shares a ‘real’ moment in the life of your winery, go for it, share it, give it a fun caption! You never know what kind of virality you might possibly spark!