Oregon Winery Restaurants?

By Peter M. Gladhart 

In the April issue, you published a guest column by Peter Szymczak recounting a wine tasting tour in British Columbia. A highlight of his trip was dining in fine restaurants located on winery property. He concluded by lamenting the near absence of winery restaurants in Oregon and urging the wine industry to ask our state legislators for permission to have more winery restaurants, alleging how this would be a good thing for consumers.

Apparently, Peter is unaware of the grand bargain, which constitutes the central principal of Oregon’s land use protection and control legislation: High value farm land is protected and preserved in large tracts that are efficient to farm while commercial, industrial and residential uses are concentrated within the urban growth boundaries of cities. Farmers are able to invest in their operations secure in the knowledge that the neighbor’s farm will not become a subdivision or shopping mall overnight, leaving them with neighbors unprepared to understand that tractors sometimes run all night and make a lot of dust. Factories, restaurants, hotels, shopping centers and residential developments occur where it is most efficient to provide the utilities, police, fire protection and other services they require.

Because farmers cannot readily subdivide their land, and cannot pursue industrial or commercial activities in an Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) zone, their land is taxed at a rate reflecting its value for agricultural production, not what a sub-divider might pay for it. Without the security of these “freedom to farm” provisions of the EFU zone, Oregon’s wine industry could never have developed as it has in the past 40 years. Many of those sun-drenched slopes of grapevines with fantastic views we now take for granted would be subdivisions or scattered homes, and the fragmented parcels in between would not be farmed to the same scale or profitability.

We grape farmers already have a rather special status among the occupants of EFU zones: with 15 acres planted to grapes (enough to produce 2,500 to 3,500 cases of wine), we are permitted to have an industrial processing facility on EFU property — a winery. With a winery comes the right to have a tasting room and sell wine to customers at retail — a commercial activity. Similarly situated farmers growing many different types of crops other than grapes cannot avail themselves of equivalent exceptions to the rules due to the nature of what they grow; at least from a standpoint of profitability, it is not feasible to turn their commodity into a finished product and sell it to tourists at their site (think of grass seed, hops, corn silage and potatoes).

Wineries have obtained the right to have numerous events for the promotion of wine sales. To lobby for full scale, year round restaurants at wineries (again a benefit other farmers have little possibility of enjoying) threatens to further create different classes of farmers, weaken the concept of Exclusive Farm Use and promote its elimination. 

Such restaurants will not increase the number of restaurant meals sold, but simply reduce the revenue of restaurants already established in cities, again weakening the support for land use control. The cities in Oregon’s wine country contain many fine restaurants with deep Oregon wine lists — finding a superb meal to go with a bottle of Oregon wine is not a problem for our wine lovers.

Be careful what you wish for. You could turn Oregon into something less than the Oregon we now know and love. 

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