Something is Sour in Napa, and It’s Not the Grapes

When most people think of California’s Napa County, they imagine the sight of beautiful hillside vineyards and the smell of grapes. For many engaged couples looking for wedding venues, those hillsides seem like just the sort of idyllic backdrop they want behind them as they say their “I do’s.” Maybe that’s why in 2013 over 3,000 couples tied the knot in and brought over $101 million in business to…nearby Sonoma County? That’s right—even though Napa is the more developed and famous of the two counties, it netted under half of that revenue last year, with only about 1,300 weddings. That’s because of a little-known ordinance from the Napa County Board of Supervisors that forbids wineries in Napa from hosting non-wine-related events, including weddings.

What does the Board of Supervisors have against wedding bells? Well, for one, when wineries can’t hold weddings, hoteliers and other business that can host nuptials get to hoard that lucrative business for themselves. There are even a small number of “grandfathered” wineries that want to keep their mini-monopoly on winery weddings at the expense of their competitors. Talk about a marriage of convenience between government and business.

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Others support the ordinance because of the absurd fear that Napa Valley, which already features such touristy attractions as the Wine Train, a “glitzy nightlife,” a plethora of tasting rooms, and a coming outlet mall will apparently “become Las Vegas” if wineries are allowed to flex their economic liberty muscles and supplement their profits by adding the wedding business to their repertoire.

Even if winery weddings in Napa Valley were to bring in more tourists, it’s unclear why the events the wineries are already permitted to hold don’t have the same effect. As it stands today, a Napa winery can host that exact same 200-person party, but as long as they bill it as a “wine education” event instead of a wedding, they’re in the clear. It’s not obvious why a person visiting the area for a big “wine education” party is a crucial part of the Napa Valley economy, but that same person visiting to watch his friends or family pledge to have and hold is somehow ruining the atmosphere.

Napa’s winery wedding ban doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Local wineries have tried for years to change the ordinance, and have always failed. In fact, as recently as 2010, the Board made the restrictions even tighter.

So if you’re looking for a good place to hold a party for 200 of your closest friends and relatives among the grapes, a Napa winery is the place for you. Just don’t be caught saying “I do!”

— Inez Feltscher
Inez Feltscher is a law student at the University of Virginia and a clerk at the Institute for Justice

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