A plan from Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone that would expand the boundaries of Temecula Wine Country is leaving some wine growers sour.
At issue is Stone’s 2020 Wine Country Community Plan, which aims to expand Temecula Wine Country into a nearly 19,000-acre tourist destination, but some growers say the plan needs to place more emphasis on preserving viticulture.
And that argument got heated Wednesday when a standing room only crowd gathered for a daylong hearing on Stone's plan at the Temecula Civic Center.
Boiling Point: Church vs. Wine
Discussion Wednesday was whether to move forward on the plan and recommend it to the Board of Supervisors. Under Stone's proposal, land in the proposed mapped area would be zoned for different uses, including agriculture, residential, and equestrian (the Valle De Los Caballos equestrian center is within the plan’s boundaries).
The proposed plan doesn’t allow for churches or schools, nor does the county allow it today, but Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship built its current house of worship on Rancho California Road in the heart of Wine Country back in 1999, and now the church wants to expand and build a school on its property.
Alcohol and schools don’t mix in California, and neither do pesticides and school children, but these are the realities if Calvary is allowed to expand, according to Peggy Evans, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association.
During Wednesday's hearing, church officials and lawyers persuaded the Riverside County Planning Commission that it should consider making room for Calvary’s expansion in the 2020 Wine Country Community Plan: In a 4-0 vote, the commissioners agreed to send Stone’s plan back to staff to determine if it should be amended to allow schools and churches into Wine Country.
According to Michelle McCue, a spokeswoman for the 35-member Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, when Calvary built its current facility, area growers were hesitant to raise a red flag.
“It was planned to be a small country church,” McCue said. “Most growers didn’t have a problem with that. Even if they did, they didn’t want to sound anti-religion. But what’s being proposed now by Calvary is a mega church.”
Calvary Pastor Clark Van Wick that local growers simply don't want his "kind" in the Valley, but Ray Falkner, owner of Falkner Winery, whose property is adjacent to the Calvary plots in question, said in a released statement, “For us, it’s a simple question of preserving existing vineyards and the remaining plantable acres in Temecula Valley, like they’ve done in Napa Valley and Sonoma. It’s pretty heartbreaking to see farmers and hardworking local business owners being painted as anti-religious or anti-church simply because we’re trying to prevent Temecula from turning into Rancho Cucamonga. Most of us are churchgoers ourselves, and are just blown away at some of the nasty propaganda floating around.”
Evans argued the school expansion “opens the door to all kinds of issues” and sets a precedent for other churches and schools to open in Wine Country.
After Wednesday’s vote by county commissioners, Evans said the mood in Temecula Wine Country has been gloomy.
“The feeling is it’s the beginning of the end,” she said, explaining that grape growing in Temecula Wine Country is a very small industry and chewing up existing acreage for uses other than viticulture would have a negative impact on the local winemakers.
“Right now, we have about 1,500 acres of vines growing,” she said. “Under the 2020 Wine Country Community Plan, we think we could plant another 1,000 to 1,500 acres, max. Grapes can only be grown in certain areas.”
By comparison, the wine-producing region of Paso Robles in Central California currently has more than 22,000 acres of vines planted, McCue said.
Turning Temecula Wine Country into a worldwide tourist destination won’t happen without the viticulture aspect, Evans said.
“Growers are worried,” she added. “Some don’t see the point of being here.”
Stone wants to expand the number of wineries from 42 to 105 under his plan.
“Where will they go?” Evans asked. “There’s no room.”
“The 2020 Plan makes it seem as if it’ll triple or quadruple vineyard land and wineries -- but that’s a total pipe dream because most of the 18,000 acres they’re talking about are either already developed to housing, equestrian and wineries, or just plain aren’t suitable for wine grape growing,” said Ben Drake, owner of vineyard management company Drake Enterprises, which farms the majority of Temecula Valley’s existing vineyards. In his released statement Drake added, “I know this Valley better than just about anyone and I can tell you that realistically there are only about 1,500 acres left of plantable land in Temecula Valley. And that’s just not enough to sustain our existing wineries, much less to support the 105 wineries the county says are possible.”
According to a petition launched by a coalition of local growers, Temecula Valley’s wine industry is at risk. The petition asks Riverside County to “prioritize vineyard development over interests that are incompatible with Wine Country’s unique agricultural character. …
“We ask you to uphold the Mission Statement put forth in the Temecula Valley Wine Country Community Plan,” the petition continued, “to ‘preserve vineyard lands and to create an environment that encourages development of wineries with the goal of making the Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country known and respected worldwide.’”