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Town's first winery opposed

Criticism high as Phelps seeks approval for rural location

May 28, 2002


FREESTONE- The westward march of wineries across Sonoma County has reached the hamlet of Freestone, a sprinkling of homes, businesses and a fire station nestled among the coastal hills.

Phelps Vineyards, a Napa vinter, is proposing a two-story, 40,000-square-foot winery in the hills northeast of town, which would produce 15,000 to 18,000 cases of pinot noir and chardonney annually.

Although it would be one of the county's smaller wineries, it would be by far the largest building in Freestone, dwarfing such businesses as Wildflour bakery, the Wishing Well nursery and the Freestone general store.

If approved, the facility would be the 192nd winery in Sonoma County -- unless other wineries are built between now and its target opening in 2004.

Public hearings will be scheduled as the Planning Commission considers the proposal. But neighbors already are divided on the issue.

"The whole quality of life will change in Freestone" if the winery is approved, said Lori Bazan, a director of the Town Hall Coalition based in Occidental, some five miles from Freestone. The coalition is a citizens action group that seeks to preserve the environment through responsible land use.

The coalition has asked for an Environmental Impact Report describing the winery's impacts on the town's limited water supply and on the rural, winding roads that would carry dozens of trucks a day, according to the company's application with the county.

Others are waiting for more information.

"We are watching carefully, but it seems like a modest proposal, relatively speaking," said Freestone resident Bill Wheeler. "Tentatively, I think it is fine and it will provide some local employment."

The proposed winery, Phelps' first in Sonoma County, would process, age and bottle wine from some 100 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes the company has planted near Freestone.

The St. Helena company aims at the high end of the market, and some of its wines sell for more than $100 a bottle. Wine from the Freestone winery could sell from $60 to $75 a bottle, Shelton said.

"We believe this site offers the potential for some of the best pinot noir in the country, if not the world," said Tom Shelton, Phelps' president and CEO.

"We want to locate the winery as close as possible to the vineyards because it reduces the travel time and makes for a higher quality product," Shelton said.

To minimize the winery's impact on the town, the structure will be agricultural in design and will be partially bermed into the hillside. It won't be visible from either Highway 12 or Bohemian Highway, Shelton said.

Also, the winery won't be open to the public. Phelps has bought the now-closed Pastorale store on Highway 12 for a tasting room and retail sales, Shelton said.

But it will take more than that to overcome the water and traffic concerns of the Town Hall Coalition.

"Freestone has a very difficult water situation, and people are afraid their wells will go dry," Bazan explained.

"The roads are terrible. Bohemian Highway is basically the only road, and it's very curvy. The project would be putting trucks on little roads that are not built to handle an industrial operation," Bazan said.

Shelton winced at the word industrial but acknowledged the environmental concerns. He said Phelps is an environmentally conscious company and is a leader in the field of organic and biodynamic vineyards.

The company will take the same care with the winery, he said.

"There are legitimate environmental concerns and we take them seriously," Shelton said. "We want to do all we can to address them."

You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or

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Town Hall Coalition
6741 Sebastopol Ave. Ste. 140 Sebastopol California 95472
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